This is a starry recording of Bellini's masterpiece.
I don't believe such a strong cast had been assembled on record
since Montserrat Caballé's recording with RCA (there the cast
included Placido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto) some twelve years
earlier. Before that there was the remarkable recording by the
greatest Norma of the previous generation - Maria Callas with
a young Christa Ludwig, Franco Corelli in his element and the
wonderful Tullio Serafin conducting. In the interim there were
two Normas who were in different ways rather disappointing: Beverly
Sills was in wobbly voice alongside an excellent Shirley Verrett
(DG). Renata Scotto’s high notes were harsh and the conducting
of James Levine was heavy-handed. Giuseppe Giacomini was in fine,
ringing voice but not very interesting (Sony). All in all there
was plenty of room for another recording of this excellent opera.
The opera concerns Norma, a druidess, and her secret relationship with a Roman general, Pollione. In the course of the opera Norma has to come to terms with Pollione being unfaithful with the younger druidess Adalgisa and must try to decide the right course of action.
Joan Sutherland had waited twenty years to re-record the demanding title role and had recently performed the part to much acclaim at Covent Garden. Her entry 'Sedizoci voce!' sounds more effortful than her earlier work (also Decca) and the wobble in her middle voice is rather pronounced. For all that, Sutherland's 'Casta Diva' is a very fine piece of singing and especially when played at quite high levels one can begin to imagine the impact that such singing must have had in the opera house.
More animated parts such as 'Fine al rito' showcase the flexibility of the voice and the years do tend to fall away - one of Joan Sutherland's finest late recordings of Verdi's 'Ernani' show that in many ways her voice never lost the startling flexibility of her youth though the astonishing power of her high notes did succumb. It is not fair simply to argue that Sutherland was 'too old' here as there were other triumphs to come in the studio such as her performance in Handel's Athalia
and her late (1987) recording in Ernani
in which she sounds fresher and brighter than here. Strange.
The Pollione of Luciano Pavarotti is a significant asset. If somewhat beyond his absolute prime - I'm thinking of the seven or eight years from his huge success in La Fille du Régiment
at the Met in 1972 - Pavarotti nevertheless turns in a very effective performance in a role he did not sing in the opera house. 'Me protegge, me diffende' showcases an easy style and flexibility with a far less baritonal voice than some his contemporaries such as Placido Domingo (EMI) or Giuseppe Giacomini. There is a great deal of excitement in his duets with Caballé (Adalgisa). His diction is exceptionally clear and the effect is exciting and far 'tidier' than the performance of Franco Corelli who had by nature greater reserves of power. Pavarotti’s is a more beautiful voice however and he is an intelligent partner in the duets.
Montserrat Caballé gives a fine performance of Adalgisa with her youthful voice making dramatic sense alongside Sutherland’s warmer sound. The effect is especially enjoyable in the duets where the voices blend admirably - albeit in a very different way from Horne and Sutherland twenty years earlier where the very different voices gelled exceptionally well. It is notable that Caballé and Pavarotti sound so much more at ease here than in their contemporary recording of Andrea Chénier
Richard Bonynge conducts with a good deal of brio and drive. He gets excellent results from the chorus.
In conclusion, this recording is admirable in many regards, especially
if one ignores thoughts of 'what if?'. The partnership of Pavarotti
and Caballé is exceptionally strong. Still the finest DDD recording
all considered. If you are after one studio recording of Norma
I would choose from Callas/1960 (EMI), Caballé (as Norma, 1973,
RCA) or this set. This should definitely be a candidate for a
mid-price release given that Pavarotti’s ‘Mefistofeles’ and the
are already available on the
mid-price ‘Classic Opera’ series. There are some savings to be
had with MP3 downloads of this recording available online for
around one third of the price of the full-priced CD box-set. It
is certainly worth shopping around.