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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801–1835)
Norma (1831)
Joan Sutherland (soprano) – Norma; John Alexander (tenor) – Pollione; Marilyn Horne (mezzo) – Adalgisa; Richard Cross (bass) – Oroveso; Yvonne Minton (mezzo-soprano) – Clotilde; Joseph Ward (tenor) – Flavio;
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Richard Bonynge
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, July 1964
DECCA 475 7902 [3 CDs: 62:17 + 30:43 + 69:10]

Norma is one of the few operas of the bel canto period that has practically never been out of the standard repertoire. Many of the great sopranos of the 19th and 20th centuries have essayed the title role, from Giuditta Pasta, who was the first Norma, via Jenny Lind up to the post-war period with singers like Callas, Sutherland, Caballé and Scotto. Styles and approaches have varied but the opera and especially the doom-laden high priestess have always fascinated audiences. Complete recordings have, however, been fairly scant and the truly recommendable versions even fewer. Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland each recorded it twice and Montserrat Caballé headed a starry cast on an RCA album in the early 1970s. I think it is between these that the competition stands.

The present one, Sutherland and Bonynge’s first, from the mid-1960s, has a great deal to recommend it but there are also some less attractive features. Coming back to it after a long time I was first struck by the – on my equipment at least – rather unattractive sound. Recorded in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, a much used and well-renowned venue. Under the supervision of Christopher Raeburn and Kenneth Wilkinson, it should have been state-of-the-art as I remember it from the LPs but this transfer had an edgy metallic aura that made the strings sound gritty and the whole atmosphere rather cold. By feeding the two-channel sound through my whole surround system I managed, however, to smooth the sound-picture considerably and ended up enjoying it. Dynamically it is impressive, the sound of the gong, when Norma strikes the shield of Irminsul, is mighty and the LSO play as well as they are allowed to, which implies that I am not wholly satisfied with Bonynge’s conducting. He opens the Sinfonia rather heavily and then chops it in pieces, due to too many abrupt tempo changes. A comparison with Serafin shows that the older maestro has a better feeling for tempo relations and the whole Sinfonia seems more integrated. I also think the admittedly quite banal male chorus in the first scene is enthusiastic, as it should be, but also very four-square, bumpy – un-bel canto. He makes amends with a finely balanced reading of the sorrowful orchestral introduction to act 2 with the cello solo beautifully shaped. Bellini’s mainly rather frail music mustn’t be pulled about too much and I think Serafin – in the first Callas recording – is a more natural Bellinian. On the other hand I heard a tremendously hard-driven reading in Berlin some months ago but thanks to the singers the opera survived even that assault.

This also proves that Norma, and Bellini in general, stands and falls with the singing, and on that account the present recording has a lot to offer. I don’t think though that Richard Cross’s Oroveso is one of its greatest assets. He has an imposing voice but employed with little sophistication. In his second act solo Ah! de Tebro al giogo indegno, to be sung con ferocia, this matters little but hearing Ezio Pinza in this part shows what can be done, and his solo in the first scene of the opera should be sung with a smile and some warmth – and it isn’t. He should be credited for his steady voice, however – most Orovesos sound as old as they look.

It is good to hear the young Yvonne Minton in the comprimario role of Clotilde, fresh-voiced and articulate.

I had forgotten what an attractive singer John Alexander was. His is a youthful voice with a light quick vibrato. He demonstrates in his first few phrases that he is no mere bawler; he phrases musically and with care for the text. He has lots of power in reserve for the emotional outbreaks later in the opera, especially in the great trio that concludes the first act, which is a feast of glorious singing. He didn’t have much of a recording career; besides this Norma I can only recall an Anna Bolena with Suliotis a few years later. Maybe it was his open sound, no covering of the tone on high notes, that caused a premature decline – just as in the case of Giuseppe Di Stefano. On this hearing, however, he stands out as one of the finest tenors from the period just prior to “The Three Tenors”.

Marilyn Horne’s Adalgisa is a marvel. Having just turned thirty she was in the first flush of youth and her voice, more soprano than mezzo-soprano in timbre, rings out with a freedom, a power and a beauty that few singers in this repertoire can challenge. Most mezzos are actually miscast in this role, which was written for a lyric soprano. She is supposed to be young; on their first encounter in the opera Norma addresses her as giovinetta, which the English libretto in the booklet a little sloppily translates “my dear”, when the proper wording is “little girl”. Horne is the singer who comes closest to the mark, lightening her voice properly. On Sutherland-Bonynge’s remake Adalgisa was sung by Montserrat Caballé, who had the right timbre for a girl but was getting too old by then. It has to be said – not for the first time – that Horne’s hushed singing at the opening of the duet Mira, o Norma belongs to the most perfect singing that has been recorded – and that also goes for most Joan Sutherland’s contribution to that scene. It is indeed remarkable how well these two highly individual voices blend when singing together and every nuance, every inflexion is so attuned that only spiritual siblings could manage it. The two ladies also sang together in numerous performances, first in another Bellini opera, Beatrice di Tenda, at Carnegie Hall in 1961 and Marilyn Horne’s Metropolitan debut was as Adalgisa against Sutherland in 1970.

Joan Sutherland herself wasn’t the most thrilling Norma, dramatically speaking, even though her technical brilliance paid dividends in this taxing role, but too often one lacks the bite, the intensity, which is reduced by her somewhat droopy delivery and her hesitant way with the text. She doesn’t always get under the skin of her character. Casta Diva in the first act is well sung of course but feels a little uninvolved – it was better on the “Art of the Prima Donna” album from a few years earlier. Still she is very good in Norma’s soliloquy in the beginning of act 2, when she contemplates murdering her children and in the big duet with Pollione near the end of the opera, In mia man alfin tu sei, she is obviously inspired by her partner, just as she is in the duets with Horne.

Back, then, to the beginning of the review and the unavoidable question: which version should I recommend? In some respects the RCA recording with Montserrat Caballé in the title role, Fiorenza Cossotto’s formidable Adalgisa, a virile Placido Domingo as Pollione and Ruggero Raimondi’s beautifully sung but too baritonal Oroveso, is a safe card. Not too thrilling but no obvious weaknesses either. If there is a drawback it is Carlo Felice Cillario’s too laidback conducting, but it is a reading to live with. Callas’s first recording, from 1954, conducted by the experienced Tullio Serafin, is required listening for the reading of the title role. Callas probes deeper than any other singer, and this is the most consummate interpretation ever committed to disc. On the other hand Ebe Stignani is too old for Adalgisa, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni is a fairly dull Oroveso and Mario Filippeschi has a thrilling voice but only scratches the surface of Pollione’s personality. The later Callas version, also conducted by Serafin, has the young Franco Corelli as possibly the most thrilling Pollione and Christa Ludwig is an unexpected but quite inspired choice for Adalgisa, but Callas is nowhere near her earlier reading. The later Bonynge version sports Pavarotti in fine fettle as Pollione and Samuel Ramey is luxurious casting as Oroveso but both ladies are past their best.

Did anyone get any wiser? Let’s put it this way: Cillario is slightly too well-behaved but a well-sung version to start with; Serafin I is a necessary complement for a full scale portrait of the protagonist and Bonynge (the one under consideration) should be in every collection for the marvellous duets – and John Alexander. Synopsis and full libretto with English translation is included.

Göran Forsling 




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