It’s difficult to know where to begin with this rather
puzzling recording, receiving its first release on CD more
than 35 years after it was made, presumably in tribute to the
late Beverly Sills. Listeners can draw their own conclusions
as to whether it warrants a release on its own merits.
If Sills’ Norma is the main reason for the release then
the answer is “sometimes”. No-one who knows her
voice will be surprised to hear that it is altogether too small
for this great part, often sounding shrill and effortful where
her rivals sounded commanding and imperious. The top note that
ends Act 1 for example, is screeched out horrendously, and
the preceding passage where she denounces Pollione (Oh non
tremare) sounds like very hard work. Casta Diva,
sung in its original higher key, also feels like a test of
strength that is taking its toll and producing little beauty,
though the cabaletta is worse. Yet her interpretation is not
entirely without merit, as there are some very touching moments
where the lightness of her voice seems to cut right to the
character’s core, as in Qual cor tradisti or in
her final appeal to Oroveso. Such moments do not make a Norma,
though, and you cannot shake off the feeling that she would
have been better sticking to the lighter roles from which she
made such a success.
Enrico di Giuseppe’s Pollione is even more variable.
When he first entered in Act 1 I spent a good minute hoping
that the tenors had been mixed up and that Robert Tear was
going to be singing Pollione’s music. Giuseppe’s
voice is bright and clear alright, but brittle and fragile
into the bargain and in this music I kept worrying that the
voice was about to smash into pieces. He sounds more as if
Donizetti’s Tonio or Rossini’s Almaviva had wandered
into the wrong opera and was altogether over his head. True,
all his notes are there, and he sounds bright and pingy at
the top of his cabaletta, but there is precious little emotional
depth - most damagingly in the trio at the end of Act 1 - and
the middle to lower registers of the role carry almost no power
Shirley Verrett’s Adalgisa brings singing of a much higher
order, matching and often surpassing Norma in their duets,
both musically and dramatically. Always interesting, the voice
was lustrous and full in 1973 and her command of this music
is fantastic. She is haunting and affecting when she first
enters, suggesting that Pollione never really wins her over
in the first scene. In the great due Oh, rimembranza she
is more secure and more fulsome than Sills, and it is she who
convinces the ear most in Mira, O Norma, with purity
of tone and poignancy of expression.
The minor roles are well taken, with Paul Plishka’s Oroveso
convincing more than one might expect. Tear is a surprisingly
characterful Flavio for the brief amount of time he sings.
Orchestra and chorus perform with distinction, though the engineering
doesn’t always clarify their sound, and the few attempts
at “production” tend not to add anything.
This was Levine’s first complete opera recording and
he was clearly still finding his way. There is little consistency
or overall argument in his view of the score: tempi tend to
be on the fast side, though he often broadens out alarmingly
in the set-pieces, such as Casta Diva or Mira O Norma,
an effect which comes out of nowhere and so can be disconcerting.
He is most comfortable when most driven, and his crash-bang-wallop
account of the overture is rather exciting, but the sacral
nature of Casta Diva escapes him completely.
So on the whole this is a disappointing effort which doesn’t
sound much better 35 years later, and it’s really for
Sills addicts only. It was marketed as an American Norma:
all four lead roles and the conductor are from the US, the
only recording that can make that boast, if boast it be. There
is really nothing here to displace the greats, though.
While every recording of Norma has its flaws there can
be little doubt that Callas and Sutherland command the field.
Callas in 1953 was fresher than in 1960, but her singing in
the stereo recording carries much more emotional weight and
has the “advantage” of Franco Corelli in full paint-stripper
mode, undeniably vulgar but much more interesting than Filippeschi.
Callas also has some remarkable live recordings from Covent
Garden (1952) and Rome (1955 with Del Monaco), each of which
has some fantastic merits but rather poor sound. Sutherland
is let down by an anodyne John Alexander in 1965 but she has
a magnificent Adalgisa in Marilyn Horne. She had lost some
of her power by 1988 but her achievement there remains remarkable
and still very beautiful. She is also helped there by Pavarotti,
the best all-round Pollione on disc, though Caballé’s
Adalgisa is swoopy and indistinct. I have a huge soft spot
for this recording: don’t believe anyone who tells you
that Sutherland could no longer sing Norma by 1988. On balance,
though, if I had to single out one recording it would be Sutherland
in 1965 as the best all-round experience. Returning to that
after listening to Sills only serves to underline the present