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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)
Norma (1831)
Maria Callas (soprano) – Norma
Mario Filippeschi (tenor) – Pollione
Ebe Stignani (mezzo-soprano) - Adalgisa
Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass) – Oroveso
Paolo Caroli (tenor) – Flavio
Rina Cavallari (soprano) – Clotilde
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Tullio Serafin
Recorded from 23rd April to 3rd March 1954 in the Cinema Metropol, Milan
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Appendix: Highlights from Norma performed by Legendary Singers (1927 – 1936)
Ite sul colle, o Druidi!
Ezio Pinza (bass) – Oroveso; The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Giulio Setti. Recorded 3rd December 1927
Meco all’altar di venere ... Me protegge!
Francesco Merli (tenor) – Pollione
Recorded 1936
Sediziose voci ... Casta diva ... Ah! Bello a me ritorna
Rosa Ponselle (soprano) – Norma; The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Giulio Setti
Recorded 30th January 1929 and 31st December 1928
Sgombra è la sacra selva
Irene Minghini-Cattaneo (mezzo-soprano) – Adalgisa
Orchestra of La Scala/Carlo Sabajno
Recorded 31st October 1929
Mira, o Norma
Rosa Ponselle (soprano) – Norma; Marion Telva (contralto) – Adalgisa; The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Giulio Setti
Recorded 30th January 1929
Ah! Dei Tebro al giogo indegno
Ezio Pinza (bass) – Oroveso); The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Giulio Setti
Recorded 8th April 1929
Deh! Non voleri vittime
Gina Cigna (soprano) – Norma; Tancredi Pasero (bass) – Oroveso; Giovanni Breviario (tenor) – Pollione); E.I.A.R Orchestra & Chorus/Vittorio Gui
Recorded from 25th August to 7th September 1937 at the Teatro Nuovo, Turin
Reissue Producer and Restoration Engineer: Ward Marston
NAXOS 8.110325-27 [62:34 + 62:06 + 73:42]

 

Norma is one of the very few bel canto operas that has been played ever since it was first performed in 1831. Performance styles have varied through the years. Listening to some of the historical excerpts that form a substantial appendix to the opera proper, we can hear good examples of the prevailing verismo style of the interwar years. Francesco Merli, for example, sings Pollione’s aria as if it were something by Mascagni, with pinched tone and a lot of effort. No bel canto here. Gina Cigna, one of the great Norma’s of yesteryear, here heard in the final scene of the opera from a complete recording, is regal and seems a close relative of Turandot’s, but it is glorious singing. We also catch a glimpse of Tancredi Pasero’s noble bass voice. The other bass, the bass of the 1920s, 1930s and possibly 1940s, Ezio Pinza, could teach any later bass what good legato singing is all about. Like Rosa Ponselle he understands the bel canto aesthetics. It was a good idea to include these excerpts for comparison.

This Norma, together with the slightly earlier I Puritani and Lucia di Lammermoor, are now all restored and available on Naxos (the Lucia will be reviewed before long). They can be regarded as the starting point for a renewed interest in the bel canto repertoire and bel canto singing in the 1950s – with Tullio Serafin conducting and Maria Callas as the heroine.

Working with La Scala forces we can rest assured that the old maestro has good playing and singing at his disposal and he hardly ever puts a foot wrong. Everything about his music-making sounds natural. Being a man of the theatre he never put himself in the foreground – as certain "big" names tend to do; he is the humble servant of the music. And if that sounds like faint praise it is certainly not intended to be – quite the contrary.

Sound-wise there have always been problems with these EMI recordings. Even the latest releases from EMI themselves, who of course have the master tapes, have not been free from criticism. There is distortion and overloading inherent in the originals. Mark Obert-Thorn, who has been working with LP pressings, has done what he can to minimize these defects and the outcome is a product that is eminently listenable, though one never forgets that it is a fifty-year-old recording.

The music is well known, I suppose, to most opera lovers, and it is inspired - hardly a weak number, although there are a couple of march-like choruses that should perhaps carry a "banality" health warning.

Bel canto of course, first and foremost, is singers’ opera and the singers have to be good: fine voices, fluent technique, a feeling for style. Not all of the present ones have, I am afraid. Ebe Stignani, to start with the oldest of them, was in her 51st year when this recording was made. She had had a long and illustrious career, making her debut in 1925 as Amneris in Aida, a part she recorded in 1946 with Gigli and Serafin conducting. There she is magnificent; here she is still singing with authority, but it is an old voice and Adalgisa has to be young. It is also slightly worn in places and has adopted that annoying vibrato, which is such a useful means of colouring the voice for certain effects, but here becomes a constant impediment. But there is no denying that she is still a formidable artist in what turned out to be her last recording.

Pollione is sung by Mario Filippeschi, who never reached real stardom but sang mainly in Italy and South America. He was a decent singer and made a few other recordings. I know him mainly from a CETRA recording of William Tell, where he is an enthusiastic but unsubtle Arnold. In that devilish part he has all the high notes and he delivers them fearlessly. And they are undoubtedly thrilling. We can hear that heroic ring here also, but mainly it is a workmanlike performance, never inadequate but never memorable either. Comparing him to the young Corelli in the second Callas Norma, Filippeschi doesn’t stand a chance.

And I am afraid that Oroveso is even worse. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni had quite a career for some years in the early 1950s but his singing here has little to commend it. It is basically a large voice, but it is unsubtle, lacking a true legato and most of his part is barked staccato-like; very effortful he sounds too. Although he was not yet 35 he sounds like an old man, which Oroveso undoubtedly is. After all he is Norma’s father; but he should also be able to express some fatherly warmth – and he doesn’t. Listen to Pinza in the appendix and there we have the real thing, in spite of some flat intonation.

But it is Callas’s opera, first and foremost, and she is magical. She has the power, the intensity, but also the ability to spin a fine and often heart-rending pianissimo thread. But Callas’s enduring hallmark was her power of living the part she was singing. Time and again she makes us believe that this is no theatre, this is real life. Very few singers in the history of recorded opera have been able to colour their voice the way Callas could. But her histrionic skill and her striving for absolute truth, however much strain it put on her voice, eventually took its toll. Here we notice that ugly beat that was to become ever more prominent in years to come and which many listeners associate with Callas. In the Traviata and Lucia recordings, made the year before this Norma, and which I have been listening to extensively for some time, it is practically non-existent. Probably sometime during the winter of 1953-54 something happened. But here that beat remains quite unobtrusive and it does not detract from her positive qualities.

Making a recommendation for this opera is not easy. There are, or at least have been, a number of good recordings. Callas’s remake, also with Serafin, has better co-singers but there Callas is only a shadow of her former self – vocally that is; her acting is just as impressive. The Sutherland, Horne, Bonynge from the mid-1960s is marvellously sung by the two leading ladies, but it’s mostly surface. The remake, from the 1980s has Caballé as a soprano Adalgisa, a Pavarotti in good shape as Pollione and a sonorous Samuel Ramey. However Sutherland is past her best here. What remains is the Cillario recording on RCA from the early 1970s with a young "dream cast": Caballé, Cossotto (probably the best mezzo-Adalgisa ever), Domingo and Raimondi (too baritonal but beautifully sung). This one also lacks real depth and Cillario’s conducting is too reticent, but for constantly good, ardent singing of four principals rather early in their careers, it is hard to beat. That said, you need this Callas version for the best interpretation of the title part on disc.

Göran Forsling



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