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Bellini: Norma
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 12 October 2002
'Norma' has been a favourite opera with me for many years, and I had heard the 1954 Callas rendition spoken of with enthusiasm. An extract on BBC Radio 3's 'Callas Night' finally prompted me to acquire a copy of the recording. It does not disappoint.
The Sutherland/Caballe/Pavarotti 'Norma' (released 1987) may be a cleaner better balanced recording, with the benefit of stereo, but for emotive power the 1954 Callas is remarkable.
As a 'techie' it always interests me how particular sequences of sound waves can strike an emotional response in a listener, while others do not. Following from that thought, it is even more remarkable that while one rendition of a given piece of music can evoke enjoyment and technical admiration, another performance of the same piece can move a listener to tears with its beauty and intensity. For me this recording is securely in the latter category.
Serafin's pacing of the Overture seems ponderous at first, with the richness of Rossi-Lemeni's Orveso, the La Scala Chorus and supporting cast providing a build-up of anticipation for the Prima Donna's customary entrance (nearly) half-way through the first act. Immediately one is rivetted by just how spectacularly good Callas was in the prime of her career. I was doing other things in the room as I played the recording through for the first time, but her 'Casta Diva' grabbed my full attention and it was as if I was hearing that wonderful aria anew.
The duet between Norma and Adalgisa (Ebe Stignani) is pleasingly balanced and their scene with the Roman Pro-Consul Pollione (Mario Filippeschi) towards the end of Act One conveys that bubbling intensity and rhythmic power which makes one feel Bellini would have been a great rock-n-roll composer had he been born 150 years later.
If there's a criticism of the performance, it would be directed at the 'Guerra Guerra' chorus of Act 2, Scene 3: Yes, I know it's a war chant, and that it should pack a punch, but Serafin drives it like the Ramones 'Teenage Lobotomy' - wildly fast, fortissimo throughout. One almost wonders if it was recorded in different surroundings at a different time from the rest of the work, and then subsequently interpolated.
All-in-all though a wonderful experience. If you already have a 'Norma', this one will allow you to enjoy Bellini's masterpiece afresh; if you are thinking about getting acquainted with the work, this is not the most technically polished in recording terms, but it is among very finest emotive renditions of one of the grandest operas in the repertoire.
The box-set is pleasingly presented, with a libretto booklet including several interesting photographs. The distribution of the material across the disks has CD1 and CD3 with twice the playing time of CD2, but this organisation at least places the change-overs where it fits the drama at intended Act/Scene boundaries, rather than in mid-scene as is the case with other recorded versions of the work.
An excellent CD set; a feast for the senses.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 December 2011
This is an opera which depends entirely on the performance of the title role, and Callas is utterly outstanding in this 1954 studio version. It is, as another reviewer remarks, moving, and touching in a way that no other version has managed to be, and this is entirely due to her rendition.

The rest of the cast is so-so - but that doesn't matter. And as Adalgisa, Ebe Stignani is smooth and responsive and always in place for the great duets and trios with Norma - though you might as well take a snooze whenever it's just herself and bold Pollione engaging tediously in flirtation or recrimination. This is Norma's show, and it's good that the others give full support but don't get in her way. Nor does Serafin the conductor, who is rock-solid in a fairly conventional oom-pa-pa manner. The great thing is that he stays in the pit, and his orchestra only surges when it needs to. This leaves Callas free to pull rhythms and phrasings every which way, and most remarkably, to great effect. (I am convinced she hits on a tango rhythm at one point in Perfido, taking a positively Latino enjoyment in her railing against Pollione in the middle act. Listen, and decide for yourself.) All the big numbers are thrilling - Casta Diva, of course, the beauteous O rimembranza, and the nearly unbearably tender Mira O Norma. But even more astonishing are the short recitativo or cabaletti passages - for example, her singing of Fine al rito, the short piece that follows after Casta Diva, is even more knock out than is that great tour de force. She always keeps extra powder in her back pocket.

Like the other great warhorses of nineteenth century opera, Norma is all the time moving towards the spectacular ruin of the prima donna. But here Bellini prolongs the agony, with the false hope that Norma's mid-opera solidarity with her younger rival may bring peace and contentment. Not so, of course, and her last act fury and pain are all the more intense for having been delayed and held back. It's a long ride, and the young Callas had the stamina for it, plus the musical intelligence to sustain the shifts and increases in hurt and rage that drive onwards to the decisively tragic finale. Later in her life she shaped this opera differently (in 1960, with Ludwig) and on radio recordings she several times sang it with more assurance, though in my view with far less nuance and detail. Of all the versions we've got, this is at once the most lovely and the most heart-wrenching. This 1954 version is the must-have Norma, the one that stays on my iPod.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I am a great admirer of Callas - what sane lover of voice and opera isn't? - which is precisely why I cannot understand giving this "Norma" five stars when there is competition of far greater quality - provided by Callas herself in her other recordings. No other artist, including Sutherland or Caballe, can touch her interpretation but if you want to hear her worthily partnered, go to either of the live 1955 mono recordings with Del Monaco as Pollione (conducted by Serafin or Votto, in listenable, but limited, sound) or the 1960 stereo version with Corelli, Ludwig and - for the third time - Zaccaria. Callas' voice had not so much deteriorated by that time, apart from a few flapping top notes, and there are huge compensations in the delicacy of her characterisation, the quality of her partners and the good studio sound. (The decline in Callas' voice was not a linear process as her later recordings of "Gioconda" and the 1960 "Norma" testify.) Regarding this 1954 performance, in truth, that great artist Ebe Stignani was too mature for Adalgisa by this stage of her career, Filippeschi is very ordinary and blaring as Pollione and Rossi-Lemeni is his usual gruff, gritty self, unsteady of line compared with the smooth production of Zaccaria. No; go for any of the other three recordings I suggest before this one - though I readily admit that if no others were available, I'd probably be happy with it!
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