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CD: Crotchet

Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma (1831) [157:00]
Norma - Beverly Sills (soprano)
Adalgisa - Shirley Verrett (mezzo)
Pollione - Enrico di Giuseppe (tenor)
Oroveso - Paul Plishka (bass)
Clotilde - Delia Wallis (mezzo)
Flavio - Robert Tear (tenor)
John Alldis Choir
New Philharmonia Orchestra/James Levine
rec. Watford Town Hall, 1973
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8186 [80:50 + 76:43]
Experience Classicsonline

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 at all.

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 recording’s shortcomings.

Simon Thompson



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