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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835)
Norma (1831) [161.12] (1)
Norma - Maria Callas (soprano) (1)
Pollione - Mario Filippeschi (tenor) (1)
Adalgisa – Ebe Stignani (mezzo-soprano) (1)
Oroveso – Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass) (1)
Flavio – Paolo Caroli (tenor) (1)
Clotilde – Rina Cavallari (soprano) (1)
Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala/Tullio Serafin (1)
Norma (excerpts) [39.10] (Ite sul colle, o Druidi (2); Meco all’altar di Vener (3); Casta Diva (4); Sgombra e la sacra selva (5); Mira, o Norma (6); Ah! Del Tebro a giogo indegno (7); Non volerli vittime (8))
Oroveso – Ezio Pinza (bass) (2, 7)
Oroveso – Tancredi Pasero (bass) (8)
Pollione – Francesco Merli (tenor) (3)
Pollione – Giovanni Breviario (tenor) (8)
Norma – Rosa Ponselle (soprano) (4, 6)
Norma – Gina Cigna (soprano) (8)
Adalgisa – Minghini-Cattaneo (mezzo-soprano) (5)
Adalgisa – Marion Telva (contralto) (6)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/ Giulio Setti (conductor) (2, 4, 6, 7)
Orchestra of La Scala/ Carlo Sabajno (5)
E.I.A.R Orchestra and Chorus/ Vittorio Gui (8)
Recorded 23rd April – 3rd May 1954, Cinema Metropol, Milan (1); 3rd December 1927 (2); 1936 (3); 30th January 1929, 31st December 1928 (4); 31st October 1929 (5); 30th January 1929 (6); 8th April 1929 (7); Teatro Nuovo, Turin, 25th August – 7th September 1837
NAXOS 8.110325-27 [3 CDs: 62.34 + 62.06 + 73.42]

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This Naxos re-issue of Callas’s 1954 recording of ‘Norma’ is part of their enterprising re-packaging of historic recordings which have come out of copyright. Issued at budget price, this Naxos line enables us to acquire notable historic recordings which we might otherwise think twice about buying for the library shelves. It helps, of course, that Naxos have had these re-mastered by Mark Obert-Thorn who has done an excellent job cleaning up the recorded sound.

This ‘Norma’ was part of Callas’s first group of recordings made for Columbia. Previously she had done recordings for the Italian firm Cetra. She subsequently went on to make another version of ‘Norma’ with Franco Corelli and Christa Ludwig in 1960.

This 1954 studio recording starts off well with the prelude given much forward impetus by Tullio Serafin and the Orchestra of La Scala. But with the opening scene, things rather go down hill. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni’s Oroveso is hollow voiced and recorded alarmingly closely; the general recorded atmosphere is horribly boxy. As the recording progresses Rossi does not really improve, nor does the boxy feel.

Mario Filippeschi as Pollione has the great virtue that he serves to highlight the miracle of Callas’s singing of Bellini’s music. Filippeschi is a rather unimaginative tenor, possessed of a reasonably solid voice; unfortunately his style in Bellini singing belongs securely to the past. He presents Pollione in just the same way as he would a verismo role like Canio, he constantly disturbs the music’s line, individual notes are emphasised, sobs are used for emphasis, his fioriture are sketchy. This is not completely his fault; though ‘Norma’ stayed in the repertoire (unlike most of the other operas from the period), performance style tended to shoe-horn the opera into the standard late-Verdi/verismo school of performance. At best, Filippeschi’s performance sound’s like lumpen early Verdi.

So, it is understandable how much of an impact Callas made; but it is difficult nowadays to quite appreciate how significant this impact was, how different her performance of Bellini and Donizetti’s music was from the standard way of doing things in Italy. It is not just that she had the facility to enable her large voice to navigate its way round the fioriture, but she had the ability and intelligence to use the fioriture for expressive purposes. Since Callas we have been used to a variety of voices singing this type of music from the coloratura to the spinto and it is not unknown for dramatic sopranos to continue to essay ‘Norma’, so it is easy for us to be a little blasé. But few people can touch the searing intensity of Callas on a good day; she sounds remarkable now and must have been a revelation when heard live. Not that everything on this recording is perfect; it must be admitted that her voice is not always completely easy on the ear. She was unable, or unwilling, to control the rather wide vibrato on long upper notes, a problem that would get worse as time went on. But that must be balanced against what she does achieve.

She is ably supported by Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa. Unfortunately Stignani, in her fifties when the recording was made, sounds more like Callas’s older confidante rather than a younger colleague. Callas convincingly brings a young sound to the role of Norma, she never sounds naïve but Callas has you believing that Norma is at fault partly because of her youth. Though Stignani matches Callas beautifully in the duets, Stignani never sounds youthful, she sounds rather matronly.

So, in the end, we have to ask ourselves which Callas recording we want, 1954 or 1960? To complicate matters, EMI have issued the first official imprint of the 1952 live recording from Covent Garden with Vittorio Gui as conductor, Stignani as Adalgisa, Mirto Picchi as Pollione and a young Joan Sutherland as Clotilde. I have not heard this disc but it has received high praise in the Gramophone; Alan Blyth comments that Callas’s live performance is compelling and electrifying. And this is the problem, Callas was at her best live and her studio recordings do not always do her justice. Her 1960 recording of ‘Norma’ reveals Callas in rather frailer voice, but her interpretation is deeper, her colleagues are stronger than their 1954 rivals and the 1960s stereo recording is rather better than this relatively primitive 1954.

So my own counsel would be to go for the 1952 live recording from EMI (Ł23.99 from Amazon) and the 1960 stereo recording. But if the budget runs to it, add this recording as well.

‘Norma’ is rather short measure for 3 CDs and I did wonder whether it might not have been fitted onto just 2 discs. But Naxos have filled the last CD with a variety of historic recordings of the opera. Ezio Pinza’s account of the opening scene only goes to emphasise the poor quality of Rossi-Lemeni’s performance. More fascinatingly, Naxos include samples of both Rosa Ponselle and Gina Cigna in the title role.

Ponselle’s Norma is lighter voiced than Callas’s, but shares with Callas a sense of the music’s line and a concern for accuracy. The liner notes comment on Ponselle’s accuracy in a way which implies that they believe she was less accurate live; it would be interesting to have confirmation of this. Ponselle’s Norma was not very influential in Italy; there Gina Cigna’s approach was more common. Cigna has a larger voice, complete with quite a substantial vibrato; as presented here, her Norma is not unpleasant, but stylistically it is far closer to verismo and late Verdi than Bellini and Donizetti.

This is a fascinating release; though it is not the ultimate Callas ‘Norma’, Naxos issue of the recording at budget price means that we can all acquire this as a revealing supplement to Callas’s other recordings.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Robert Farr

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