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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma. Opera in two acts (1831)
Norma, High Priestess of the Druid temple – Maria Josť Siri (soprano); Pollione, Roman Proconsul in Gaul and father of Norma’s children – Rubens Pelizarri (tenor); Adalgisa, a virgin of the temple – Sonia Ganassi (mezzo); Oroveso, Archdruid and Norma’s father – Nicola Ulivieri (bass); Clotilde, Norma’s confidant – Rosanna Lo Greco (soprano); Flavio, a Roman centurion – Manuel Piarettellio (tenor)
Chorus Lyrico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini”
Orchestra Regionale delle Marche/Michele Gamba
Directors: Luigi Di Gamba and Ugo Giamazzi.
Set Designer: Federica Parolini
Costume Designer: Daniela Cernigliaro
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
rec. live, July/August 2016, Sferistereo Festival, Macerata, Italy
Picture format, 16:9.1080i. BD 50. Sound format, PCM Stereo 2.0/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Chinese.
Notes and synopsis in Italian and English
DYNAMIC Blu-ray 57768 [144 mins]

Of the great belcanto composers of the primo ottocento, Bellini had the easiest passage to fame. Born in Catania, Sicily, in 1801, his father and grandfather were musicians and minor composers. Under their tuition it was reported that Vincenzo could play the piano marvellously at little more than five years of age and was writing sacred music by seven. His grandfather having taught him all he could, Bellini went to study at the Conservatory at Naples in 1819. It was a custom of the institution to introduce a composition student, who had completed his studies, to the public with a dramatic work and Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, an opera semi seria, was presented with a cast of male students in the conservatory’s theatre. Its success led to a commission from the Royal Theatre of Naples, the San Carlo, to write an opera for a gala evening in May 1826. This too met with success and Bellini received an invitation from La Scala, Milan, where his third opera, Il Pirata was received with acclaim in October 1827. The Milan commission brought Bellini into contact with the librettist Romani and the two started a fruitful collaboration. This was based not only on the composer’s liking for Romani’s verses, but also on personal friendship; this friendship tended to blur the composer’s irritation with the librettists dilatory and dilettante manner as to delivery dates.

Between 1827 and 1833 Bellini lived in Milan and the success of his works gave him entry to the higher social circles. Although he never held a musical post, the popularity of his operas and their unique character allowed Bellini to ask a higher price for his compositions than had been the norm in Italy previously, albeit that some music critics saw dangers in the novel style he was evolving. Bellini was not perturbed and he wrote in March 1830 My style is now heard in the most important theatres in the world. However, all was not a bed of roses for the young and handsome man, who had as his mistress the wife of a wealthy local industrialist. He suffered the first bout of the gastro intestinal problems, from which he was to die within five years. After convalescence, and aborting an opera based on Victor Hugo’s Hernani because of censorship fears, he presented La Sonnambula at Milan’s Carcano Theatre in the season staged by the Duke of Litta, and two rich associates, involving the soprano Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Rubini (Review). It was an enormous success and Bellini was commissioned to write an opera to open the 1831-32 Carnival Season at La Scala. With Romani as librettist the chosen subject was Norma.

The performances of the Sferistereo Festival take place in Macerata, a city in the Marche area of Italy, which has hosted the Festival for over forty years. The main venue for productions is the Arena Sferistero; a unique venue converted from an arena designed for the playing of the then national sport of pallone col bracciale and which involved use of materials from the city wall. As the popularity of the game declined the playing space was levelled and in 1914 opera was performed there. The stage is 14.5 metres deep and 40 metres wide, with 10 metre wings each side of that. It is rather unusual shape for musical performances, however the acoustics are reputably good. It holds an audience of over 6,000 and is a formidable venue for performers and audience alike and can be seen in the introduction. However, along with the challenges faced by the singers the bigger challenge is that faced by the stage director and designers to accommodate the intimate as well as public scenes of many operas.

The plot of Norma concerns the eponymous Druid priestess who, despite her vows of chastity, has secretly had two children by the occupying Roman proconsul Pollione. She discovers that he has transferred his affections to another priestess, her friend Adalgisa. Norma tries to persuade Pollione to renounce Adalgisa and return to her, even threatening to kill their children. When he refuses she confesses her guilt publicly and is condemned to die on a funeral pyre. Pollionne, moved by her actions, asks to die with her.

The co-director duo of Luigi Di Gangi and Ugo Giacomazzi focussed the action on the centre of the wide stage, using translucent drapes and ribbons of cloth to disguise the space and set the scene, not very successfully. This was the pattern throughout, leading to some confusion for the watcher as to what and where the action was intended to be taking place, albeit it obviated the necessity of moving heavy stage structures. Equally it missed the opportunity for some grandiosity that the music needs and the opera demands. The costumes were a melange of styles and periods and the conclusion was visually pathetic!

The title role is reputed to be something of a killer by sopranos with its wide vocal range and demand for flexibility and fullness of tone. Uruguayan Maria Jose Siri in the title role has certainly the weight of voice, if not the ideal flexibility. Scheduled to open the La Scala season in December 2017 as Butterfly, hers is a spinto sized instrument with welcome warmth of tone and good diction and acting. The upshot was a deserved ovation for the cavatina ‘Casta Diva’ (CH.8) and the succeeding cabaletta with chorus. More used to the bel canto repertoire, Sonia Ganassi as Adalgisa was outstanding as singer and actress, her every phrase loaded with nuance and feeling, a consummate portrayal. The two women, together in the duet ‘Mira o Norma’ (CH. 23) , their scales in wonderful unison, brought justified vocal enthusiasm and approval from the audience although what either of the singers, or the audience, made of the play with a long strand of chord I don’t know.

Of the men, Rubens Pelizzari as Pollione brought heroic tone, and a not unpleasant timbre, to his singing and with power to spare. What was lacking was in his acting ability. Stock hand waving gestures are not enough for present day audiences and his lack of acted commitment seriously undermined his contribution. As Oroveso, Nicola Ulivieri brought vocal steadiness and god characterisation to his interpretation, albeit I would have liked a little more sonority in his tone for the moments of gravity.

On the rostrum, and giving the whole some fusion and frisson, was the relatively young Michele Gamba who has obviously learned a lot during his time at Covent Garden with Antonio Pappano. He shows much promise.

Robert J Farr



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