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A dissenting voice
on 20 November 2010
This DVD has attracted only two reviews on the UK website, both very positive. It has presumably sold well in the US as there are no less than 30 currently in place, the vast majority being 5* with only a few not liking it. I regret that I have to join the ranks of the few.
Let's start with the technical issues. The recording was made in the Roman theatre in Orange in southern France. Naturally it was out-of-doors and, as others have commented, the Mistral was blowing at the time. Inevitably the microphones picked up a fair amount of noise from the wind and the singers' robes and headdresses can be seen swirling about. Personally, I don't have a problem with this - it adds an expressionist touch to the turmoil of the plot and is a constant reminder that this is a live performance. But, additionally, the sound quality itself is poor. The orchestra sounds very thin. With the singers the main problem seems to be the placing of the microphones as the volume and balance vary wildly and there is a distortion at times. In the first act trio comprising Pollione, Norma and Adalgisa the two women are almost drowned out by the tenor. Not their fault, I think: this is simply a question of balance. There are also, at least on my copy, two occasions when the sound simply disappears for about half a second or so, fortunately not in places where it matters.
The video quality is also poor. In fairness it has to be said that the lighting is basic and the individual singers appear mainly in single spotlights. This creates a great deal of contrast which any medium will struggle to record well but even by the standards of forty years ago this picture is not good. Even the opening titles aren't sharp!
All of this might not matter too much if the performance itself was artistically satisfying. And here I part company with nearly all of the previous reviewers because I don't think it is.
The production is a traditional one in that it doesn't update the setting (good). The sets are pretty minimal which is fine, and not surprising, given that nearly all of the action takes place at night. The chorus are dressed in white robes which look vaguely Biblical rather than Druidical but that's OK. I don't know what Norma's dress is meant to be (see the picture on the front of the box) but it looks more 19th than first century. Orovese (Norma's dad) and Adalgisa look fine in their robes. Pollione is dressed in armour as if he were a centurion, not a proconsul (which is a political rôle, not a military one). And surely even military men don't wear their armour all the time! This is one of several minor details where I find the director has not bothered to follow the libretto. Two more examples will suffice. Before Norma makes her first entrance the chorus tell us that she is to cut the sacred mistletoe with a sickle. When we see her - no mistletoe, no sickle. Perhaps she put them down somewhere. And in the last act she tells the Druids, who have captured Pollione, to untie him when he isn't tied up at all.
But what about the performers themselves? Starting with the best, I find Agostino Ferrin as Orovese to be convincing in his small rôle; he sings very well. Jon Vickers is not the sort of singer one would expect to take on a bel canto part but he acquits himself quite well as a bluff no-nonsense soldier who simply cannot cope with emotional problems (except that he's not supposed to be a soldier...). Josephine Veasey as Adalgisa is OK although her histrionics are very much in the village hall am dram tradition.
And Caballe as Norma? I found her to be disappointing. Some of the time she sings beautifully eg in "Casta Diva" but too much of it is unemotional. On the Amazon.com site you will find an amusing little spat between a reviewer and a commentator as to whether she sings in tune. I am afraid that I side with the reviewer and to my ears she is frequently noticeably flat, especially on lower notes (Veasey isn't completely beyond reproach in this respect, either). This might not matter so much if you're at a live performance but it becomes a problem with repeated viewings. And her acting? What acting? Caballe doesn't act convincingly either vocally or with her body. In fact the one time she shows a flash of emotion is right at the end when she displays anger and disappointment with Pollione. This is quite a shock after what had come before, and shows what she was perhaps capable of doing. And as for the scene when she is considering killing her children - well, I have rarely seen such unconvincing and mechanical gestures on the professional stage.
Having said all of that I must add, in fairness, that the audience seemed to enjoy it greatly judging by the amount of enthusiastic applause.
There are no extras with this DVD. The liner notes are very perfunctory and the packaging is flimsy. Not that this matters much, of course, but when you are forking out nearly thirty quid you do expect better than this.
In fact my main gripe with the thing is that it is grossly overpriced. If it were issued at something well under £10 as a historical curiosity for punters to buy in addition to another, first choice performance, then it would be understandable. But when you are paying top whack you expect something which is artistically satisfying and of at least passable technical quality. Sadly this DVD fails badly on both counts so far as I am concerned.