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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835)
Norma - Lyric tragedy in two acts (1831)
Pollione, Roman proconsul in Gaul - Vincenzo La Scola (tenor)
Oroveso, head of the Druids - Andrea Papi (bass)
Norma, Druidess, Oroveso’s daughter - Fiorenza Cedolins (soprano)
Adalgisa, a young priestess of the temple of Irminsul - Sonia Ganassi (mezzo)
Clotilde, Norma’s confidante - Begoña Alberdi (soprano)
Flavio, a friend of Pollione’s - Jon Plazaola (tenor)
Two boys, Norma’s and Pollione’s sons ...Gonzalo and Julián Corrià
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu / Giuliano Carella
Recorded at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2007
Stage Director: Francisco Negrín
Set Design: Anthony Baker
Costume Design: Jonathan Morrell
Chorus Master: José Luís Basso
Menus: English; Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Catalan
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD5.1, DTS5.1; Picture Format: 16:9; Region Code 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101465 [169:00]
Experience Classicsonline

If the length, strength and general hullabaloo of audience appreciation are criteria for a successful performance, particularly by the two female leads, then this DVD will take some beating. Despite the clamour following Casta Diva lasting for nearly two noisy minutes, it is to Fiorenza Cedolins’ greatest credit that she did not respond. Any movement by her in acknowledgement would have led to even more prolonged appreciative racket - certainly when judged by the flowers that showered onto the stage for her and for Sonia Ganassi (Adalgisa) at the final curtain.

Was it all deserved? Yes it was, if you want your Norma full of splendid contrasts: an imperious but caring priestess and a loving woman/mother with vocal and facial hellfire and brimstone when wronged.

The plot: so simple, so unbelievable. Rome occupies Gaul. Norma, the Druidess/chief priestess is the daughter of Oroveso, the head of the Druids. The Druids wish to fight the Roman army of occupation but are held back by Norma. She has had a long-term secret relationship with Pollione, the Roman proconsul in charge of Gaul, and had two children by him. He switches his love to Adalgisa, a novice priestess, who reciprocates it. Adalgisa confesses that love to Norma in order to be released from her vows. All is revealed with recriminations in plenty. Norma decrees a sacrifice to the gods. She and Pollione depart to their pyre.

Cedolins has a magnetic stage presence: a dramatic soprano par excellence. If I have a reservation about her vocal smoothness at fortissimo above the stave that reservation disappears when she reduces to a mere forte. She brings intensity to the role which commands attention from her opening recitative. This is emotion laid bare with vocal size to match; coloratura and chromatic runs to be seriously enjoyed. When the orchestra slows to allow her to emphasise her notes and words then who but the pedantic purist would care.

Cedolins’ flashing eyes, facial vitriol and expressive body language contrast with the so well portrayed softness and naiveté of the Adalgisa of Sonia Ganassi. Until Ganassi identifies her lover, Cedolins can display her protective high priestess role in caressing sounds. Ganassi is a mezzo bel canto exponent. Her wide ranging creamy timbre has some appealing soft colouring. She also brings strongly contrasting emotions to her opening recitative. This is a finely honed sympathy-commanding dramatic performance with vocal accuracy of diction and note.

The balance between the timbres of Cedolins and Ganassi is not quite as roundly smooth as one might expect. This may be attributable to the slightly sharper timbre of Cedolins when compared say with that of Edita Gruberova on the Deutsche Grammophon DVD ( 00440 073 4219) where Ganassi again takes the role of Adalgisa to the Norma of Gruberova. If the dramatic interaction is not as strong, the vocal balance with Gruberova has greater silkiness.

So to Pollione, but first a digression. If Pinkerton is the most loathsome male in opera, then conventional wisdom says Pollione comes second. To me Pinkerton’s conduct is knowingly misleading which makes it so offensive: but people do fall in and out of love, so is Pollione correctly put in the same league? Discuss. Some other time, perhaps.

That Pollione should demonstrate remorse when ‘caught out’ is self-evident. Whereas Vincenzo La Scola has the notes, he does not have the dramatic contrition. There is plenty of action but nothing like the intensity of Cedolins or Ganassi. He has a secure Italianate lyric tenor but there is no ringing tone to excite; and in his opening aria effort appears to be needed on high. He seems to be a sturdy reliable Pollione rather that a passionate pro-consul moving on to the ‘younger model’.

Andrea Papi is a dramatically assured Oroveso. His actions controlling the Druids and his reconciliation in the final scene to his sudden grandparental role are convincing. However, he manifests little control of his vibrato which seems to become more of a wobble. A good deep sound but not matched by steadiness.

The Clotilde of Begoña Alberdi and Flavio of Jon Plazaola are splendidly supportive. In her brief time on stage Alberdi manages to convey the years of loyalty and indulgence of Norma’s other life with a well rounded soprano.

Unfortunately the opening set does the chorus no favours. An effective concept of the Druids underground or in cellars with the Romans above them but the enclosing space seems to restrict the sound. When released above ground, so to speak, they come forth with vocal vigour that is particularly effective in the final scene.

If the opening of the Sinfonia shows conductor Giuliano Carella almost physically attacking the music, it may be evident from my earlier comment that he ensures the orchestra is fully supportive of the singers. He varies pace and volume to suit and reins in any urge to push forward.

The period of setting is conventional with costumes to complement. Cedolins’ distinguished drapes add to her ability to command the stage and her Druids. Before she has appeared in her singing role, the silent involvement of Adalgisa in the early Druid ceremonies is a very effective piece of theatre making the operatic whole just that little bit more convincing. That is particularly so because Ganassi conveys well her hesitation at involvement mindful of her forthcoming meeting with Cedolins requesting her release.

The DVD is accompanied by a small accompanying booklet comprising the usual cast and track list with a synopsis, brief background article, and biographies of the four leads. The acts conveniently fit onto a disc each. There is no bonus material on the discs.

I have mentioned the Deutsche Grammophon recording. There the setting is brought forward to a Western style occupying force with the Druids as terrorists (freedom fighters) armed with machine guns, pistols and face masks. Gruberova is a mature Norma well versed in the experience of life. There is more than a touch of resignation in her acceptance of her own demise. Cedolins achieves that after passing through younger, more vocally and dramatically violent resentment.

There are many other DVDs presently available. The only other one to which I would specifically draw your attention is the 1974 recording of Caballé as Norma with Josephine Veasey (Adalgisa) and John Vickers (Pollione). It is a Pierre Jourdan film with audio and video recorded at different times. Notwithstanding Caballé describing it as her best operatic recording, I will stay with the rather feisty Norma of Cedolins.

Robert McKechnie 

 


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