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on 23 May 2013
This is a controversial recording and will not suit everyone's tastes. But then, as Bartoli in the accompanying essay explains, our modern tastes are based on inauthentic practise. This recording tries to strip away the inconsistancies, the bad habits, the preconceptions, and present the opera as it may have been heard in Bellini's day.

We will never prove how authentic this really is, but it makes very interesting listening, and is an commendable effort to step out of the shadow cast by Callas and Sutherland.

The recording uses a new edition of the score, with expanded duets and trios and new variations here and there. It's not as ground-breaking as suggested by the booklet: much of these discoveries were performed by Holland Park opera some years ago (with Nelly Miricioiu), and nor is this the first ever performance with period instruments. But in terms of restoring, reviving and research, Decca and Bartoli are here following in the footsteps of pioneers like Opera Rara. Integrity and history can sometimes lead to a dull outcome, but here, whatever one makes of the casting or the edition, it is certainly alive with personality.

I've often felt, in the past, that Bartoli's coloratura can sound too aggressive and staccato for my taste. Here, the explosive nature of her dazzling technique, works very well; Norma is a wronged woman, and Bartoli, despite a smaller-than-usual voice for the part, is dramatically alert to the possibilities. Singing at the original pitch, the more prayerful introspective parts are beautifully sung and overall I was much taken with her interpretation - more so than I expected. It's on a more human scale than Callas, but infinitely more in focus than Sutherland or Caballe.

Sumi Jo is the soprano Adalgisa, and certainly she sounds a lot more youthful than mezzos Ebe Stignani (with Callas) or Horne (with Sutherland). It's a more delicate approach, but she's an intelligent singer and her voice is lovely. Osborn's Pollione - a thankless role - is cleanly sung, lacking Corelli's heroics but bringing much bel canto detail. It's a sweet toned voice in quieter passeges (The Qual cor tradisti scene is exquisite), and under pressure it's still flexible and secure, if a less lovely sound. Pertusi is the sombre father figure.

All the principles decorate the music. In Bartoli's case, I disliked her additions to the line in Casta Diva, and thought Osborn over-decorated Pollione's cabaletta too. He also adds interpolated high notes (but Norma has none of her climactic notes added). So some inconsistancy there perhaps.

Antonini conducts a sprightly account, allowing this full edition to fit 2 CDs. In that respect he is similar to Levine's account with Scotto (often over-looked but full of memorable moments). Sometimes it seemed to me that the determination to be different resulted in contrary effects-for-the-sake-of-it. Even the overture is hurried along sometimes, and certain crucial passeges - presumably following the score to the letter - are prosaic; the famous "son io" at the climax of the opera is usually held and given great significance. Not here. Despite that, the opera obstinitely refuses to look back to the Baroque, and remains, even here, a throughly forward looking Romantic masterpiece.

The recording is clear and well balanced if a little too reverberent or echoey for my ideal.

Put alongside other recordings (I won't be parting with Callas OR Scotto), this is a fascinating exploration. And whichever version you listen to, one thing is for sure: Bellini's genius shines through every bar.
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on 10 July 2013
There's a lot going for this recording. A Rossini tenor for Pollione and a soprano for Adalgisa make perfect sense and both are very well sung. The period instruments and sprightly tempi give the whole opera a real freshness and momentum. Which leaves only one problem. Bartoli is good in her own distinctive way but for me she's just too mannered and internalised to totally convince. But still, if you're in any doubts (as I was), this recording is well worth investigating, particularly at £14 (see offers under new).
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on 23 August 2013
I listened to this recording several times before attempting to review it.
NORMA is my favorite opera and this the 36th and newest version in my collection. I have heard the title role sung by artists as diverse as Rosa Ponselle (in excerpts only), Gina Cigna, Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Elinor Ross, Beverly Sills, Elena Suliotis, Anita Cerquetti, Renata Scotto, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Ghena Dimitrova, Jane Eaglen, Edita Gruberova, Daniella Dessi, Nelly Miricioiu, Hasmik Papian, and Mariella Devia, so I do consider myself entitled to give an informed opinion.
I can only name 3 singers who have been great Normas. In chronological order they were Ponselle, Callas, and Caballé.
Regarding this latest recording, I must confess beforehand that I am not a fan of Cecilia Bartoli, having always considered her to be less of a stage performer and more of a concert artist, and a vulgar one at that, taking no risks and prone to mannerisms. Well, at the age of 46 she confounded the critics and finally sang Norma on stage, NOT in Italy, but in Salzburg. Was she afraid to sing the role in Italy, choosing a safer Germanic milieu instead? I will not comment on the horrendous 2010 Dortmund concert version and will await until the (modern staging) Salzburg performance becomes available on DVD or YouTube to pass judgment on that.
This recording is supposed to treat the operatic score "come scritto" and as it must have sounded in Bellini's time, with relatively smaller voices and orchestral sound on period instruments (ie of slightly lower pitch).
Much of it is admirable, even beautifully performed. The Scintilla Orchestra really shines with brilliance and accuracy under Giovanni Antonini, but some passages sound too fast and he should have let the music breathe more.
Michele Pertusi has just the right amount of vocal heft for Oroveso. In the past we have heard baritonal tenors with honking bronze voices as Pollione (del Monaco, Corelli, Domingo, even Vickers) and in John Osborn we have a light lyric, almost Rossinian tenor. It is a good portrayal, even if the voice sounds impersonal and the diction occasionally suffers. One wonders what Joseph Calleja, Gregory Kunde or even Juan Diego Florez would have done with this role.
The role of Adalgisa is here delegated to a soprano. This is nothing new, one can refer to Eva Mei, Mirella Freni (on disc) and even Montserrat Caballe (the 1984 Decca recording with Joan Sutherland) in the past. Well as Sumi Jo may sing Adalgisa's music, her portrayal is so faceless, her vocal color so ordinary, that neither the character's ardor nor her youth come across as credible.
And then we have Cecilia Bartoli. One must first of all admire her tenacity, stamina, diligence and sheer guts in undertaking what the French call "le role des roles". I have seen Bartoli both in concert and on stage. She has a limpid voice and virtuoso technique, but I regard her as a flamboyant performer who likes to show off, whose art never matured, and who resorts to exaggerated rolled rrrrs, yodelling trills and little sighing, giggling effects.
It is evident that she worked long and hard on Norma and luckily we have very little of the above. The voice is not large but expressive throughout its considerable range, the phrasing accurate and elegant. Some of the vindictive, tigress-like outbursts impress, but one wonders whether they sound convincing because she is singing 10cm from the microphone and if they would be the same on a large stage. One also wishes she would follow performing tradition and prolong some iconic moments like the confession of her guilt in "Son io" or the exposed high C on "Sangue Roman" (where Callas famously cracked in Paris in 1964) , which add infinite dramatic credibility to the role.
She delivers many passages beautifully; "Casta Diva", sung softly, with long breath control, an added cadenza and variations in the second stanza, is lovely. The trio which concludes Act I is brilliant with its threatening phrases repeated and embellished. The "Mira o Norma" duet is admirable. I found her two best moments in the final scene, a "Qual cor tradisti" duet which is a lesson in lyrical emotive singing and a final plea in "Deh non volerli vittime" which is simply heart-rending.
BUT my main objection is to her overall portrayal, which is wrong, totally wrong. She gives us Anna Magnani instead of Norma, we hear a jilted Neapolitan bourgeoise instead of the divine Gallic priestess. The atrocious photographs of a black-clad, dishevelled Bartoli on the recording's cover and in the Notes show a village woman who is the object of adulterous vendetta on a Greek island (Bartoli's album photos have always been of execrable taste, think the embarrassing Sonnambula and Sacrificium artwork!). This downgraded interpretation becomes clearly audible in a horribly paced, blandly sung "In mia man alfin tu sei", which happens to be my favorite part of the work. What we hear is a "cornuta" housewife hen-pecking her errant husband. No, this is NOT Norma. Listen to this performance, then refer directly to Maria Callas and Mario del Monaco at La Scala in 1955 to understand how this magnificent duet should sound! One has simply to read the Italian libretto to remind oneself that Vincenzo Bellini clearly did not intend his heroine to be incarnated the way Bartoli has: the priests describe Rome's star covering itself as Norma approaches, Adalgisa fears her "Celeste austerita", to Pollione she is a "Sublime donna"! This is no ordinary human role for any singer to undertake but an impossible, often unattainable, operatic challenge. There are clear indications why Norma is considered the pinnacle of Italian soprano roles and I regret to say that the worthy Cecilia has disregarded them.
In conclusion, by all means do buy this version and listen to it for an "authentic" musicological interpretation and some beautiful singing. But for a real portrayal of Norma please allow me to go back to Callas and Caballé (no, not Sutherland) in their respective primes.
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on 25 May 2013
I have been anxious about this album since it was advertised. I came to hear it with delight and surprise. I guess when Norma was revisited by Callas in the early fifties and recorded by her twice in the studio, the surprise and interest and discussions were as constant and full of energy as this Norma will be.
First thing, the reading by Bartoli does not have the verismo touches added in the performances by Callas, which are the seminal ones of the 20th century. Sure Sutherland or Caballé did great readings, but the Norma by Callas is the gold standard. The dramatism of Callas, her skills and command as actress and singer are a comparison difficult to stand against. And, let's not forget, the cast for the stereo Norma by Callas, in 1960, include Serafin in the podium, CORELLI as Pollione and Ludwig as Adalgisa.
Nevertheless, this recording by Bartoli and her team is really good. It seems to me a little baroque. I mean, it is difficult to turn Bartoli away from her baroque output and the small ensemble for this recording and even some keyboards added in the performance make me feel I am near Haendel or Vivaldi in some moments. Of course, the instrumentation is superb and I accept this version. Indeed, Bartoli, as Callas, is nearly a musicologist. She will have many arguments to justify her choices. And she gets an excellent cast.
To identify if a Norma is good, the key parts I hear are the Sinfonia (instrumental introduction), the Casta Diva aria by Norma, the duets by Norma and Adalgisa, the aria by the tenor and the duo "In mia mal al fin tu sei" by Norma and Pollione and the terrific "Guerra" chorus. All these are terrific here. Let's not forget this Norma is a mezzo, not a sopran. This is a particular originality here. Bartoli does good, she is a great actress and her voice is delicious. So I do not doubt to say this Norma is a revelation. She may not be as despereate as Callas in some scenes, not so etereal in her Casta Diva, but she is clearly in love, she is pain, she is angered. She sings her part with property and she moves me. I like her. She has sung the Casta Diva in her album to celebrate the life of the Spanish mezzo Maria Malibran and I wondered in those days, some years ago, if she will move to sing Norma. She did. She got it.
The orchestration by Giovanni Antonini, who is in the podium does not sound as a big orchestra but as a ensemble or small orchestra section. With that economy or resources he does a powerful reading. The "Guerra" chorus sound as frightening as it should and the sinfonia is dramatic and expressive. Good.
Adalgisa. She is critical for this opera. Sumi Jo is great. She plays well against Christa Ludwig and Ebe Stignani, the Callas companions. She is a gifted singer, perhaps the greatest surprise in this album. I came to know her in this album. No doubt I will follow her. She is first class.
Pollione. He is played by John Osborn. This Pollione is well played. It is not match for Franco Corelli or Mario del Monaco with Callas, but he is a good tenor. His aria is moving and though he is the one who sounds less romantic, he has a good voice and his duos with Norma (In mia man al fin tu sei) and Adalgisa (O va crudele) are very well sang. He is a good tenor and I enjoyed his singing. I did play twice his aria and his duo with Norma. With Corelli I could do that at least four times in a play, but Osborn deserves a loud and enthusiastic bravo.
The bass Michele Pertusi does his part as Oroveso, Norma's father. A small part but very well sang.
Conclusion: I enjoyed it and I bought it. I guess it will be played as a "Norma for concerto" in a small hall, not in a big Opera theather. It is an intimate Norma, moving and very well played. It is not a frightening Norma, but a delicate one, more to be heard than to be watch. I will love if this Norma is turned into a louder format in a live recording.
After Callas version in 1960, this is the second option. As a revelation and revolution. Sutherland and Caballe cannot take appart the shadow of Callas. Bartoli is the first to try to build a new path. That deserves an applause. Opera is art, art is revolution
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 May 2013
I have to be clear from the outset of this review that I don't really care for Norma and while I acknowledge what a fabulous voice Ms Bartoli has, she just doesn't sing what I like to listen to. So both opera and artist are outside my comfort zone. The only Norma I listen to with any regularity is Maria Callas second studio performance (conducted by Serafin)which has Franco Corelli singing a much better Pollione than Mario Filippeschi who sings on Callas's first studio recording from 1954, probably her finest recording and less jaded than the later one but Corelli sells it for me.

I wondered what all the fuss was about and Spotify have made this recording available from day one so I have had the opportunity to listen to it twice today. Wow! Ms Bartoli must have borrowed a time machine to go back to 1831 and listen to what Bellini heard. I can only describe this as like an old master painting that has been restored with all the old varnish and dirt being lifted leaving a bright, vibrant canvas as exciting as when it was first painted.

Everything is just right, from Bartoli's magnificent performance, the other cast fitting well, Sumi Jo, John Osborn and Michele Pertusi sing the roles of Adalgisa, Pollione and Oroveso respectively and all are superb (IMHO). I have not heard Sumi Jo sing better. The period instruments are a breath of fresh air with Giovanni Antonini squeezing every last ounce out of the Orchestra La Scintilla who are dynamic, powerful but gentle when requiring it, but in all cases they are sympathetic to the singers and add the extra factor to this recording.

The Spotify version even on maximum bit rate does not do justice to the excellent engineering of this recording. How do I know? well I went to linn records dot com and bought the FLAC 24bit 96kHz Studio version. It is more expensive at £23.50 but if you can output flac to your DAC then you will hear a huge difference. If you don't have a DAC or are just going to listen on the PC then the CD version will be fine.

For someone who is not a real fan I cannot tell you how impressed I am with this recording. So if you like Norma and/or are a big fan of Ms Bartoli then I guess this is going to really knock your socks off. Finally I think we need to appreciate the work that she has done in researching this and giving us the opportunity to listen to the music as it was meant to be performed.
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on 13 June 2013
Conceptually this is spot on. The orchestra sounds just right. Tenor and Bass are quite acceptable. Sumi Jo is fantastic as Adalgisa and it's a joy to hear the right voice type at last. The ideal pairing of the required voice types has hitherto been limited to Montserrat Caballe and Valerie Masterson in Rossini's Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra. What a "Norma" that team would have delivered.

Why only 3 stars? Well sorry to say, I find Ms Bartoli unlistenable. Her addiction to ridiculously exaggerated rolling of the letter R is now out of control. The influence of Ms Bartoli's Producer, the late Christopher Raeburn is obviously hugely missed.

Whatever you do, avoid hearing this through head-phones. It's torture and not of the exquisite variety.
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on 7 January 2014
I love Bartoli and I love Bellini's "Norma" but the two do not go together for me. This is not a recording that I would recommend. No doubt I have been influenced by the great sopranos of the past who have excelled in this role such as Callas, Cabille and Ponselle. I feel it really does need a very special voice and a commanding one. Perhaps some will find this interpretation to be a revelation. I'm afraid it did nothing for me.
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on 5 February 2016
Having read some of the reviews online I was not sure what to expect, however I now find myself at odds with some of the reviewers. The performance has a clarity and directness that is very refreshing. I have listened to the Callas version and find it much to c20 - too big - too inflated. The voices are well balanced and whilst I understand that we all have our preferences to say that Bartolli does not suit the role lacks understanding and perspective. She strives for and achieves the essence of character and her clarity of diction and beautiful phrasing is a joy to hear. I would recommend this CD to anyone who wants to extend their awareness of opera. The CD package is excellent (whilst the CDs are a little difficult to get out!) and the accompanying booklet is worth the price in its own right.
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on 15 June 2013
I'll start with my main negative points.
Antonini should be fined for speeding. Let the music breathe. This super complete edition is about 15 minutes faster than Sills with Levine and about 20 minutes faster than Sutherlands 1st recording.
Imagine the late Mackerras with the Hanover Band at the helm. Much as though I love Bartoli's singing she needs someone to reign in some of her excesses. She venerates Malibran who at times was considered vulgar and unoriginal.
Sometimes setting about a score with a pair of scissors is no bad thing.
The act 1 finale "vanne si mi lascia indegno" does go on a bit. In this recording it goes on and on and on and on and on. Bonynge had the length about right in his 1st recording.
Apart from all that this is an interesting effort that may pave the way for few more different performances
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on 23 May 2013
I have always loved Bellini, initiated in the Callas/Serafin school, with little time for the rather lazy Sutherland/Bonynge events and somehow disappointed by Caballe, however great. But now I know why Stendhal wept at Bellini's death, and this really is Bartoli, Jo and Scintilla at an amazing best, renewing how we hear this rather as Parrot did with Monteverdi's Orfeo over three decades ago. Buy two! No-one has sung 'son felice' with the same intense melancholy as Cecilia.
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