This 1972 recording of Norma always in its day played second fiddle to the sets featuring Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, but it nevertheless deserves its reissue here. Montserrat Caballé’s soft-toned assumption of the role of the Druid priestess lacks Callas’s ferocious engagement with the text, or Sutherland’s heroic fullness of tone. It still packs plenty of impact, and her voice is not subject to the waywardness of Callas, or the incipient beat which had begun to affect Sutherland’s middle register at the time of her second recording in 1984. It also boasts a strong supporting cast, considerably better than that on either of Callas’s commercial recordings or Sutherland’s earlier Decca set of 1965.
Caballé herself featured in the later Sutherland set, singing the role of Adalgisa and perhaps showing herself more suited to the part of the young priestess than the title role. At this earlier stage in her extended career her voice had still all the agility and sweetness of tone that the music demands. Some time after the original release John Steane in the Gramophone complained of a feeling of “dangerous pressure in louder passages” which resulted in some unsteadiness on high notes. By the time he came to review the CD reissue in 1988 his attitude had softened somewhat, noting that she provided “moments of rare loveliness” and commenting that “she deserves her bouquets”. She is in the line of purely musical Normas, missing out almost entirely on the sense of outrage and drama that Callas found in the role; but within that tradition she is among the very best.
Fiorenza Cossotto is a strong-voiced mezzo rather than a soprano Adalgisa. As such the balance of power between the two women is rather turned on its head. Although the celebrated combination of Sutherland and Marilyn Horne in Sutherland’s 1965 set is the most exciting of all, the combination of Sutherland and Caballé in the former’s 1984 recording probably comes closer to what the composer had in mind. Cossotto is at least thoroughly on top of the coloratura demands, with an evenness of tone that commands respect. Plácido Domingo is as virile a Pollione as one could wish; not as sweet-toned as Luciano Pavarotti on the 1984 Sutherland set but commanding the stage during his scenes. He is immeasurably superior to John Alexander on the earlier Sutherland set, or either of his rivals in the two commercial Callas recordings — where Franco Corelli on the later set is simply miscast.
In the smaller roles Ruggiero Raimondi is excellent as Oroveso. Kenneth Collins, himself no mean Pollione, is rather wasted in the small role of Flavio. Elisabeth Bainbridge takes on the mantle of the young Sutherland herself - in the live 1952 Callas recording from Covent Garden - as Norma’s maid. This is casting from strength, and the chorus is finely full-toned too. The orchestra under Carlo Felice Cillario plays superbly, and the only real cause for doubt lies in the conductor himself. He was a favoured partner of Caballé, and he was willing perhaps to over-indulge her in the matter of rubato to an extent that undermined the forward impulse of the music. The Penguin Guide described his contribution as “a little underpowered” and Raymond Monelle writing in Opera magazine was rather ruder, complaining that there was “no flow, no sense of shape and contrast”. Caballé clearly felt at ease with him, and he allows the music to find its own leisurely pace without hustling the singers – not an inconsiderable virtue.
For some time after the original release of this set complaints mainly focused, as in the Metropolitan Guide to Recorded Opera, on the claim that it represented “production line opera”. It had what at the time seemed to be almost a standard casting of Caballé, Domingo and Raimondi in a whole series of recordings not only for RCA but also for EMI and Decca. I am not quite sure whether this criticism holds water any more, if it ever did. Any listener should be grateful for the combination of such excellent musical values with casting in depth and recorded sound of the highest order. Roland Graeme in the Metropolitan Guide also remarks unfavourably upon the English accents of the chorus; this is surely sheer nit-picking. Very few of the rival sets feature Italian choruses, and the sometimes ragged quality of their singing there does little to recommend the brand. I have not in this review made any comparisons with later recordings, since this set is surely representative of 1960s and 1970s opera at close to its best. As such it should commend itself to more than just any Caballé fans who might have missed earlier reissues.
The 1988 RCA reissue on CD came with complete text and translation. Here this is reduced to a cued synopsis, but there again the words are not great literature and can readily be found online. The earlier Sutherland set came originally with a translation of alarming bathos – I seem to remember an exchange in the last scene given as “So let us dissemble; it is politic to dissemble”…”Yes, let us dissemble, if dissembling helps” – and I suppose we should be grateful to be spared any such unintentional humour. The recording still sounds excellent, and this reissue is to be welcomed. It is not the whole story of Norma and Callas certainly finds more in the title role than we are given here but as a purely musical experience it still holds up against its competition.