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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Casta Controversial Diva; a fascinating experiment., 23 May 2013
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This review is from: Bellini: Norma (Audio CD)
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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