Top positive review
A wonderful clarification of the score
on 19 June 2016
Possibly because I made my first career as a singer of Baroque Music, I find this a thrilling and fascinating listen. I don't despute the claims of Callas (I have heard both EMI recordings as well as the 1955 La Scala and the very sad last Paris extracts: my preference is the RAI with Stignani and del Monaco conducted by Serafin).
From the first sonorities of the overture, there is a vividness and passion to this recording that is hugely involving, How often does one refer to the orchestra in Bellini? The extended version of the introduction to Act 2 with its stabbing sdorzandos and poignant horns is riveting. GIuseppe Antonini has been criticised for tempi too brisk but to some extent these are dictated by the bows of the period band and the energy and colour of the sonorities bring their own felicitation.
Cecilia Bartoli attracts a lot of criticism, but I have loved seeing her in the theatre both on stage and in concert, her enjoyment of taking in breath and emitting it as sound to share with the audience is entirely infectious. I've not seen her sing Norma live, but she has taken the role into the theatre and her achievement seems astonishing to me here. Her command of text, that ineffable ability to make the music hang in the air, the compassion of "Teneri figli" and an almost chiaroscuro control of dynamic, no doubt necessitated by the limits of her instrument, are hugely compelling. She sings Casta Diva in F (as did Pasta) but tackles Mira O Norma in the original key (unlike Callas who transposed it down), albeit at 430 not 440. She has been criticised for not hanging on to the scenario turning "Son io" but the sense of rushed confession followed by stunned silence is mesmerising and her pained singing of "Qual cor traditisti" haunts the memory. Sure, her voice is less even and beautiful than in earlier days, but there is no ugliness to match that of Callas or the wear on Scotto or Sutherland in her second recording.
I thought Sumi Jo absolutely ravishing as Adalgisa, the purity and youthfulness of her sound ideally suited, the soft Ab on "Ah, l'amai" exactly as requested in the score. She also responds positively in the duets with Norma and creates a wonderful sense of stunned timelssness in the extended version of the Act 1 Trio.
John Osborn sings with elegance and lyricism as Pollione: he actually sounds like both a lover and a man to inspire devotion. His response at "Stupenda Donna" is absolutely beautiful: a man shocked at a humanity behind what he had ever considered.
Nobody will buy a Norma recording for Oroveso but Michele Petrusi is entirely adequate to the task and the chorus is wonderfully hushed before his Act 2 aria, although they can sound a little small scale in some places such as the 'Guerra' chorus. The quiet ending of this with Norma singing against the chorus and floating an arpeggio at the end is magical though.
It's been quite a while since last I sat down and listened to a new opera recording from start to finish. This revelatory recording encouraged me to do that as it works so well as both music and drama and although you'll need to set aside pre conceptions (which is not to discredit the achievements of Caballé, Callas, Scotto and Sutherland in this opera). If you can listen with fresh ears you may find it revelatory. The CD packaging is exemplary and the booklet notes informative about the decisions taken in reaching the edition recorded.