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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma (1831)
Norma - Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo)
Adalgisa - Sumi Jo (soprano)
Pollione - John Osborn (tenor)
Oroveso - Michele Pertusi (bass)
Clotilde - Liliana Nikiteanu (soprano)
Flavio - Reinaldo Macias (tenor)
International Chamber Vocalista
Orchestra La Scintilla/Giovanni Antonini
rec. April, September 2011, January 2013, Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirchemeinde Zurich-Oberstrass, Zurich
DECCA 4783517 [81:34 + 61:37]

Think you know Norma? Think again. Just as she did with her 2008 Sonnambula, Cecilia Bartoli has set out to challenge all of our preconceptions about Bellini’s opera. The intention was to recreate the piece to be as close as it is reasonably possible to get to how it must have sounded when it was first performed in the 1830s. In her very well researched booklet note, Bartoli notes that the 1830s had a very different, much more flexible concept of voice type to us and that the singers who were most closely associated with the role of Norma in the 1830s, namely Giuditta Pasta and Maria Malibran, were famous for singing a lot of parts that we would today call mezzo-soprano roles. This challenges the late 20th-century, post-Romantic conception of Norma as a role for a high dramatic soprano, most famously exemplified by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland in the 1950s and 1960s. As with her Amina, Bartoli argues a persuasive case that Norma works for a mezzo, though there are obvious losses with some of the climactic high notes, more of which below. In addition, Bartoli points out that the first Adalgisa was also the singer for whom Bellini wrote the role of Elvira in I Puritani, so she follows this logic through by giving Adalgisa to the high coloratura soprano of Sumi Jo, thus reversing the poles of the opera as we have become used to them, though Bartoli points out that, from the point of view of register and virtuosity, the differences between Norma and Adalgisa are not all that substantial. This role reversal is combined with a new critical edition and an orchestra of period instruments to cast the opera in a whole new light.
 
It is, in fact, the orchestra who are the biggest surprise - and in many ways the biggest asset - of the recording. In the tuttis there is a metallic clang to their sound that is reminiscent of the Turkish music in Mozart’s Entführung - just listen to the opening bars of the overture to see what I mean - which is very surprising but really refreshing. The overture itself goes at a fair lick - as does most of the rest of the opera, a result of the creative team’s extensive research into Bellinian performance practice. This helps to inject excitement and tension into the proceedings so that you are never in any doubt that this is a drama of tension and excitement. These rapid tempi also carry the incidental benefit that each of the two acts appears complete on one CD. There is also a lovely transparency to the sound made by Zurich’s Orchestra La Scintilla. That’s partly a result of the instruments they choose - the earthy rasp of the brass - and the well captured recording. A decision has clearly been made to allow the earthy thwack of the period timpani to stand out in the texture. There are also the decisions of conductor Giovanni Antonini who puts a lot of air around the sound at certain key moments. Listen, for example, to the major key section at the end of the overture which returns as part of the Guerra! guerra! chorus in Act 2: it is as bright, spacious and airy as the rest of the prelude had been zingy and exciting. The climaxes are never less than thrilling, such as the orchestral tutti that introduces Norma’s first appearance or the march music that ends Pollione’s duet with Adalgisa. The choice of period instruments, such as the wooden transverse flute in the introduction to Casta Diva, helps to cast the colours of the work in a refreshing new light.
 
What of the singing? Well, it’s certainly different to what you’ll be used to, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily like it. Bartoli herself is never less than commanding in the title role. Her opening Sediziose voci, for example, is marvellously imperious, for all the lightness of the voice and the lower pitch. However, I was never entirely convinced that she was seeing the role from the inside. For all her research and her revelations into performance practice, she never sounded quite right to my ears, which have, admittedly, been conditioned by years of listening to Callas and Sutherland. The thrilling ring of the top notes pinged out at the end of scenes was, in most cases, entirely missing. OK, those high notes may not be precisely authentic, but they sure are thrilling. I couldn’t shake the thought that Norma loses something without that opportunity for extrovert vocal display. The end of the great cabaletta Ah! bello a me ritorna, for example, passes for almost nothing, with Norma’s voice all but subsumed into the overall texture. Don’t those high notes show another aspect of the priestess’s almost superhuman character, after all?
 
More troublingly for me, I’ve often been bothered in the past by a warble, almost a yodel that has a habit of creeping into Bartoli’s voice. It bothered me quite a bit here. Often I just wanted her to sing the note with clarity and beauty - it’s bel canto, after all - and not worry about the rest. When she does that, such as in Casta Diva, she sounds fantastic, but that “yodel” creeps into many of the recitatives, presumably as a misguided attempt to inject more drama into the exchanges; I found it very off-putting. The two places it does work well are her hysterical denunciation of Pollione when she first finds out about his affair with Adalgisa, and the recitative that opens Act 2, where she considers murdering her children. In those instances all the technique is used to enhance the drama. Bartoli is undoubtedly a wonderful actress, and that comes across very well in this recording, but she is sometimes in danger of being a finer dramatist than she is a musician.
 
Sumi Jo, however, is a delightful Adalgisa. Here the part definitely gains from being sung by an unorthodox choice of register. Her light, pearly soprano points up the character’s innocence, and the contrasting gentleness of her first entrance is most effective after the mezzo-soprano drama of the preceding scene. She never seems to stand a chance against the appeals of Pollione in the first scene, but she is wonderfully tender as she recounts to Norma the beginning of her love for him in the great duet of the next scene. In fact, the duets for Norma and Adalgisa are the finest vocal moments of the set. The two voices seem to slot together magically so as to make them almost indistinguishable and, in these cases, it doesn’t seem to matter who is the soprano and who is the mezzo.
 
John Osborn, who impressed me hugely in the Netherlands Opera’s I Puritani, takes on Pollione. The tessitura holds no terrors for him, but I couldn’t shake the doubt that he was making his voice a little too light for the character. It is true that, as Bartoli points out in the booklet notes, the tenor was a very different creature in Bellini’s day, much lighter and more flexible, and Osborn’s interpretation is in keeping with that. However, it just didn’t excite me. Pollione is meant to be a daredevil seducer after all and, innately musical as Osborn’s performance is, he never quickened my pulse in the way you get when you hear the role sung, however inauthentically, by Corelli, Del Monaco or Pavarotti. However, like so much else in this recording, you just need to get over your preconceptions and leave them at the door. I may not enjoy Osborn’s style as much in this recording, but I’ll happily admit that he is very good at it, and the leggiero flexibility that he brings to the role is certainly a refreshing change. He also uses his voice admirably to point up the drama in different ways and different contexts. His entrance aria, for example, is intimate and fairly light as he describes his dream of Adalgisa in Rome, but when the cabaletta begins he finds a newly extrovert register to his voice and ends that scene with a thrillingly heroic flourish. He also rises to the challenge of the final scene, and his climactic duet with Norma brings out the best in both characters, their antipathy finally turning back into love and a recognition of what they have lost in one another. Qual cor tradisti is fantastic, Osborn singing in an almost half-voice as he contemplates the scale of what he has done, while Bartoli taps into all her reserves of wounded humanity. Antonini then slows up dramatically for the final ensemble, lending extra dignity to Norma’s plea for her children. It’s a magnificent end to the piece, even if it lacks those cresting top notes.
 
Michele Pertusi is an ideal choice for Oroveso. He has a rich, sonorous boom to his voice which is notable on any occasion but especially so when he keeps the company of period instruments and performance practice. He oozes authority as the chief druid but is also able to evoke vestiges of sympathy for his daughter’s fate in the final scene. Only occasionally does he sound a little stretched in the lowest registers of the role, undoubtedly a result of performing it at 430 Hz, notably lower than the standard modern concert pitch of 440 Hz.
 
It’s worth saying a word about the edition, too, which has been scrupulously researched by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi. There aren’t many major changes, but it restores a few passages here and there and cuts a few extraneous ones that have crept in over the years. It’s all of a piece with making this recording as close as it is possible for us to get (at present) to how Norma must have sounded to Bellini’s own ears.
 
It will remain fundamentally a personal choice, however, as to whether this is a Norma that you will want to live with. It will take a place on my shelf as the “other” Norma, but for the sheer vocal thrills that so excited me when I first got to know the opera, I will always go back to Sutherland in 1964 or Callas in 1960: deeply flawed but still magnificent. If Bartoli’s is the new norm for Norma then I can thank her for bringing the opera back into the contemporary spotlight, but I can’t stop myself from yearning for the great interpreters of the past who made the role so immortally thrilling.  
 
The presentation, by the way, is up to Bartoli’s usual very high standard: there are four essays together with full texts and translations and a range of colour photographs of the sessions and rehearsals, all packaged within a special hard-back book which will look very handsome on your shelves.
 
Simon Thompson
 

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