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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma - opera in two acts (1831)
Norma, High Priestess of the Druid temple - Dimitra Theodossiou (soprano); Pollione, Roman Proconsul in Gaul and father of Norma’s children - Carlo Ventre (tenor); Adalgisa, a virgin of the temple - Daniela Barcellona (mezzo); Oroveso, Archdruid and Norma’s father - Simon Orfila (bass); Clotilde, Norma’s confidante - Roberta  Minnucci (soprano); Flavio, a Roman centurion -  Flavio Pavan (tenor)
Chorus Lyrico Marchigiana; Orchestra Regionale delle Marche/Paola Arrivabeni
Director, set and costume designer: Massimo Gasparon
A production of the Sferistero Festival, Arena Macerata, Italy, August 2007. Filmed in 16:9, High Definition.
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese.
Notes and synopsis in Italian, English, German and French
[2 DVDs: 165:00]


Experience Classicsonline

Of the great bel canto composers of the primo ottocento Bellini had the easiest passage to fame. Born in Catania, Sicily, in 1801, his father and grandfather were musicians and minor composers. Under their tuition it was reported that Vincenzo could play the piano marvellously at little more than five years of age and was writing sacred music by seven. His grandfather, having taught him all he could, Bellini went to study at the Conservatory at Naples in 1819. It was a custom of the institution to introduce a composition student who had completed his studies to the public with a dramatic work. Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, an opera semi-seria, was presented with a cast of male students in the Conservatory’s theatre. Its success led to a commission from the Royal Theatre of Naples, the San Carlo, to write an opera for a gala evening in May 1826. This too met with success and Bellini received an invitation from La Scala, Milan, where his third opera, Il Pirata was received with acclaim in October 1827. The Milan commission brought Bellini into contact with the librettist Romani and the two started a fruitful collaboration. This was based not only on the composer’s liking for Romani’s verses but also on personal friendship. This friendship tended to blur the composer’s irritation with the librettist’s dilatory and dilettante manner as to delivery dates.

Between 1827 and 1833 Bellini lived in Milan and the success of his works gave him entrée to the higher social circles. Although he never held a musical post, the popularity of his operas and their unique character allowed Bellini to ask a higher price for his compositions than had been the norm in Italy previously, albeit that some music critics saw dangers in the novel style he was evolving. Bellini was not perturbed and he wrote in March 1830: My style is now heard in the most important theatres in the world. All was not a bed of roses for the young and handsome man who had as his mistress the wife of a wealthy local industrialist. He suffered the first bout of the gastro-intestinal problems from which he was to die within five years. After convalescence, and aborting an opera based on Victor Hugo’s ‘Hernani’ because of censorship fears, he presented La Sonnambula at Milan’s Carcano Theatre. This was part of the season staged by the Duke of Litta, and two rich associates, involving the soprano Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Rubini (review). It was an enormous success and Bellini was commissioned to write an opera to open the 1831-32 Carnival Season at La Scala. With Romani as librettist the chosen subject was Norma.

The plot of Norma concerns the eponymous Druid priestess who, despite her vows of chastity, has secretly had two children by the Roman proconsul Pollione. She discovers that he has transferred his affections to another priestess, her friend Adalgisa. Norma tries to persuade Pollione to renounce Adalgisa and return to her, even threatening to kill their children. When he refuses she confesses her guilt publicly and is condemned to die on a funeral pyre. Pollione, moved by her actions, asks to die with her.

Macerata, a city in the Marche area of Italy, has hosted a festival for over thirty years. The main venue for productions is the Arena Sferistero. It is in one of the most unusual arena venues. Originally built in the 1820s for the practice of the sport called pallone. When the potential of its massive size was recognised in the 1960s it was restored and now seats over six thousand spectators. Its massive back wall provides a width of stage which frequently challenges producers as is the case here. The central set, for both acts is a stepped dais topped with four rectangular columns and roof above which is a lit beacon; most of the limited action takes place on and in front of this. To each side are walkways allowing the various individuals and groups to enter and leave. Symbols of right and left-handed swastikas abound.

After the long prelude (Disc 1 Ch.2), well conducted by Paola Arrivabeni with drama, but without losing Bellini’s elegiac motif, the Druids led by Oroveso enter (Ch.3). Whilst the chorus is appropriately vibrant in their singing, Simon Orfila as the Druid leader is unsteady and lacking in vocal colour, weight and sonority. Worse is to follow with the entry of Pollione (Ch.4) sung by Carlo Ventre. He is recognisable in appropriate Roman type costume and certainly does not lack weight of voice. However, his stentorian tones are used unremittingly without any effort at characterisation or much variation of modulation throughout the performance. With little effort at acting, except for the odd hand-wave, his is in the worst traditions of can belto Italian tenors.

The entrance of Norma at the top of the steps brings some improvement in singing quality.  Dimitra Theodossiou has some claim to be the leading current exponent of the role. Her interpretation tends towards the mould of Callas. However she has a bigger voice, to encompass the dramatic outbursts, than her earlier compatriot and can be compared to that of Caballé in her memorable 1974 recording from the Roman Theatre at Orange, with the full gusts of the mistral as accompaniment (Hardy Classics HCD 4003). Theodossiou is well capable of soft singing with promising legato as in the recitative to Casta Diva and the aria itself (Chs.5-6), but far too often she sings with vocal abandon and excessive chest tones, losing vocal beauty in pursuit of overt and crude dramatic effect. As Theodossiou sings Norma’s great aria, the video director reveals himself as the ultimate fiddler, never letting his camera settle for a minute, constantly moving to and from close-ups to mid and wide shots and even from above, somewhere high among the audience! It is not only irritating but also reveals the frequent ugly snarl on the soprano’s face and her excessive, even demonic, eye make-up. Throughout the opera Norma appears in a variety of low cut dresses, in a medley of colours from white to black via vivid blue and red, each of similar design with her ample bosom more than adequately exposed in the aforesaid frequent close-ups of the video director. When Norma is joined by the Adalgisa of Daniela Barcellona, the singing quality goes up another welcome notch. I will not enter here into the relative merits of a soprano or mezzo voice for the role; suffice to say that Barcellona’s warm vibrant tone contrasts well with that of Theodossiou, whilst their singing of the lovely ethereal melody of the duet Mira, o Norma (Disc 2 Ch 1) is a highlight of the performance. Adalgisa, like Norma, is in a low-cut dress, but in red and with a similar level of exposure. It is no wonder these supposed chaste women attracted Roman officers like bees to honey!

The director, Massimo Gasparon, who is also responsible for the sets and costumes, seems to have devoted most of his time to the inappropriate coloured costumes. Often, as at entry, the chorus could be mistaken for those of Romans, with red robes and with yellow drapes from the shoulder looking just like a Roman toga (Disc 1 Ch.3). Similarly, as they enter at the call for war, (Disc 2 Chs. 4-5) their headdresses look more Roman than Druidic. Nor does Gasparon distinguish himself as director, the singers often being left to their own devices and with little use being made of the possibilities of the stage set. As to what is supposed to be going on with counter-rotating swastikas as Norma and Pollione enter the flames I am not sure, nor, I suspect, were the audience any wiser than I.

This is the second shot Dynamic have had at this opera. An earlier performance from Catania, Sicily with the same Norma and Pollione was poorly received (Dynamic 33493) and whilst this is an improvement on that, it by no means fills the need for a modern video recording of Bellini’s masterpiece. Recently, nearing the end of her illustrious bel canto career, Edita Gruberova has taken on the role. Regrettably, the production involving her that has made it onto video is more confusing than illuminating. It does, however, have the virtues of Brian Large’s immensely experienced video direction and, as in this performance, an excellent Adalgisa, sung in this case by Sonia Ganassi (DG 073 4219 GH2).

Robert J Farr





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