A new recording of Bellini’s “Norma”
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma, with Cecilia Bartoli, Sumi Jo, John Osborn, Michele Pertusi; Giovanni Antonini conducts La Scintilla. A new release from Decca/Universal. Available in stores June 11.
In the opera world any performance or new recording of Bellini’s Norma is news. The work holds a sacred place among audiences and performers. It’s the story of a druid priestess who betrays her people by her involvement with a Roman proconsul. She bears him two children. When he leaves her for another woman, in opera there’s always another woman, she threatens them both with death.
But when the time comes, Norma confesses that she herself is the traitor and accepts death on a funeral pyre. In one-act of redemption, the tenor/proconsul/cad/horndog dies with her. Good stuff! Laughable except for the sublime music. Norma has it all. Love, treachery, betrayal, redemption and a final, magnificent catharsis.
Norma dates from 1831, and even its premiere is the stuff of legend. The title role was written for the great Giuditta Pasta. Stendhal, Rossini and Liszt left vivid descriptions of her singing. Based on Bellini’s original score, we believe Pasta to have been a mezzo-soprano with a soprano extension. Flaws in her singing are noted: tendency to be flat, stridency, and a number of notes that were simply “not there.” It didn’t seem to matter. The lady was a sensation and beloved by that triumvirate of Italian opera composers: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti.
Over the decades, Norma was toughened up. Wagner adapted the opera; he admired Bellini’s endless melody. Orchestras were enlarged and so were theaters. Keys were raised to accomplish a brighter, fiercer sound. Norma was played with a militaristic flair, played for strength and gravitas as opposed to music. Norma ceased to exist as music. It became music drama. That’s fine but the balance was off. (Bellini lived a generation after Mozart and Haydn. Their wit and strict proportions would have been in his head.)
Cecilia Bartoli is a mezzo-soprano. Her voice is warmer and smaller than Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland who preceded her. With a larger orchestra than Bellini planned and in lower keys, Callas owned the role through the 1950s. That is how my generation learned and loved Norma, and love it still. Bartoli’s new recording will have Maria and three generations of deceased divas spinning in their graves, or slugging it out in heaven. “This is not Norma!” they will cry. “It is Nor-m-ina! Little Norma. Pah!”
Fifty years later, Bartoli is joined by La Scintilla, an early music band playing on wooden instruments and gut strings Bellini would have recognized. The lower keys of Norma principal arias and duets are retained. The opera is played for music first. Norma is written such a way that if you can read and sing you can’t help but produce a dramatic performance.
This Norma is a Norma with Mozart’s texture and an Italian fire. It could have been Mozart’s opera had he lived another 50 years. (It used to be pejorative to say something like that.) Norma, we were assured, should be large, grand and heavy. That’s how Callas and Sutherland and Caballe sang the role. All were stupendous. Bellini was long dead so who cared? I wouldn’t go without any of their performances.
Cecilia Bartoli gives us an alternate view, based on Bellini’s handwritten scores. Adalgisa, the seconda donna, is sung by Sumi Jo, a light soprano. She is meant to be a young virgin. Tenor John Osborn lacks the heroic ring we associate with Pollione, but offers firm legato often missing. Michele Pertusi makes a great lead out of Norma’s father, Oroveso “toga role”. He’s the first Oroveso I’ve noticed.
This may be the most important operatic recording in 20 years. Don’t throw out your Callas or Sutherland performances. But buy this Norma and cherish Bellini as music.