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.