Cecilia Bartoli's Norma: Loved Her, Hated It

Friday, September 06, 2013 - 03:00 PM

Ceclilia Bartoli as Norma at the Salzburg Festival Ceclilia Bartoli as Norma at the Salzburg Festival (© Hans Jörg Michel)

There are certain words, such as incredible and unbelievable, that can be interpreted in both positive and negative ways. For example, “that was the most incredible performance I have ever seen! You were unbelievable!” Words that express astonishment must be understood in the larger context in which they are uttered. This is not the same as the comment to a performer that sounds like a compliment and is anything but: “Darling, you’ve never been better than you were tonight...” 

I have been thinking these thoughts, and many more, since I saw Cecilia Bartoli in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma at the Salzburg Festival on August 27. The production and the performances were incredible, unbelievable, singular, unforgettable and many other adjectives that can imply both the state of ultrawonderfulness and ultradreadfulness.

Let me be very clear. Cecilia Bartoli gave one of the most amazing performances by a singer I have ever been present for. She was phenomenal. But the production this performance resided in was unbelievably awful. I am still trying to sort out how I could have experienced such extremes of reaction at the same time. 

Bartoli, a mezzo-soprano with a high extension in her range, is not a Norma like those of cherished memory, including Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé. Among current artists, Sondra Radvanovsky and Angela Meade seem closer to the way the music reads on the page and should be performed.

The role of Norma, one of the most difficult in all of opera, was first sung by Giuditta Pasta, whose voice was likely higher than Bartoli’s—closer to that of Sutherland. Bellini died three years after the opera's 1831 premiere and did not hear the Norma of Maria Malibran (1808-1836), a singer he admired, whose voice was probably more like Bartoli’s. The version Malibran sang was likely closer to what Bartoli performed in a new critical edition by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi that had its premiere with this production.

My thoughts about this unforgettable night at the opera—hang on, I will get to the production soon enough—have blended with ideas found in two articles I have since read. One was an opinion piece by Met general manager Peter Gelb on the Bloomberg News website, published on August 31. The other was a September 5 profile of Joyce DiDonato in The Daily Telegraph.

The headline of Gelb's article is "Great Stories, Bold Vision Will Keep Opera Grand: Comment." In it, he speaks of “having survived” his seventh season as Met general manager and goes on to offer contrasts to the funding challenges faced by European companies whose government support is shrinking as opposed to American companies that rely on ticket sales and fundraising to pay the bills.

There are some passages in the article that one has to reread several times to grasp what Gelb wants to say. For example:

"But today the notion that high art can also be entertainment is anathema to those who think that genius is not suited to accessibility and that opera presentations should be a Spartan exercise. This concept has potentially threatened opera's very existence, resulting in the staging of some operas over the last several decades that misguidedly deconstruct familiar plots, thereby depriving audiences — particularly new ones — of the satisfaction of being able to follow the original storylines.”

He then cites the notorious “Planet of the Apes” version of Rigoletto by Doris Dorrie that was staged a number of years ago at the Bavarian State Opera. I am sure I am not the only person who, while reading this, thought of Michael Mayer’s production of Rigoletto that premiered at the Met last January. Not only was it updated to Las Vegas in 1960—many productions update operas—but the story told in the program synopsis plays fast and loose with the story for which Verdi composed. The text of the projected titles, full of Rat Pack jargon, had little of the grace and power found in the original words of Francesco Maria Piave.

And yet this Rigoletto production was light years better than the Norma that Cecilia Bartoli. Fear not—I will get to it!

Mr. Gelb's central premise, one with which I fully concur, is that contemporary opera audiences deserve productions that are fresh and innovative while remaining faithful to telling the story as created by the composer and librettist. To which I would add that this storytelling must also take place in singing and orchestral performance in which any compromise in quality is unacceptable.

You should read Mr. Gelb’s entire article and then read Rupert Christiansen’s paean to Joyce DiDonato. I share his feelings about this special artist. In the article we learn that the mezzo takes time to mentor young singers (right, at Juilliard in January). "I advise them not to attempt to turn the sound they make into something it isn’t – don’t try to be Bartoli or Pavarotti. I did that when I was 25 and it got me into trouble. Have the confidence to be yourself and shed the pretense: that’s something I feel I’ve only learnt recently myself.”

Christiansen writes that DiDonato "has trenchant things to say to the people who run the business too,” taking aim “at certain operatic marketing campaigns that she believes are misleading and unhelpful. ‘Stop apologizing, stop trying to sell our music by dumbing it down. Sell opera on the basis that it is like nothing else on the planet, not on the basis that it’s superficially cool and hip – that is so phony.'"

I suspect that Joyce DiDonato would do honor to the Malibran version of Norma, but she would have nothing to do with the production in Salzburg I will now tell you about.

There are many stage directors who approach opera looking for ways to change or reduce the original story because they consider the emotions too big and unwieldy. This production has two directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. They borrow heavily from classic European cinema in bizarre ways. The opera is set in about 1942. During the overture, we see people scurrying about who might be in the French Resistance. Much of what they do is upstage, with their backs to the audience. The conducting of Giovanni Antonini and the orchestral playing of La Scintilla sounded like aggressive movie music, lacking all the beauty and structure that Bellini imbued in his gorgeous score.

Their Norma is not a Druid priestess in ancient Gaul, but seems to work in a school in France, though it is unclear if she is a principal, a teacher or a secretary. This fact makes “Casta diva" completely senseless—in what way is this Norma a chaste goddess? Unlike most of the other characters, who could be Jean Gabin or Danielle Darrieux, those icons of French cinema of 60 years ago, Bartoli instantly brings to mind the magnificent Roman actress Anna Magnani. As a source of inspiration, there is none better. Magnani was one of the greatest actors of all time. 

As we meet Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera as Adalgisa and American tenor John Osborn as Pollione, their story with Norma becomes a tawdry, rather Italianate love triangle that has little to do with the French Resistance story happening simultaneously. References to two film styles that have almost no relation to the opera at hand make everything incomprehensible. Change the costumes and you could be in “Planet of the Apes” or "Ocean’s 11" (the original 1960 version).

Norma is, nominally, French, so her betrayal of her people to the Romans, as happens in the opera, makes no sense if she seems like a Roman movie actress. I should point out that Bartoli, herself a Roman, did not imitate Magnani but instead captured that fiery intensity. It worked for me as I mentally placed her in a real production of Norma instead of this mishmash of cinematic allusions.

Throughout the performance I kept thinking of Luchino Visconti (1906-1976), one of the greatest film directors of his time (along with Fellini, De Sica and Rossellini) but also an unparalleled opera director. Visconti was the ideal collaborator with Maria Callas, the greatest operatic actress, as well as Anna Magnani, the finest Italian film actress. Visconti easily shifted between the two mediums and understood that, in movies, the camera and its close-ups brings the audience in while, in opera, the music and the acting come out from the stage.

To understand this, watch Magnani in a brief scene from Visconti’s “Bellissima," an extraordinary film that needs to be rediscovered. You might notice that the music is from L’Elisir d’Amore. If Bartoli had this scene in mind, she took its essence of mother and child but scaled it for the opera stage.

At the end of this production, when Norma and Pollione were tied to chairs as the school is surrounded by real fire, the heat caused the curtain to lock open. The music ended. The fires did not go out. The singers murmured to one another, “What now?” It was the most anti-climactic climax to an opera I have ever seen, a real mess. 

And yet, Cecilia Bartoli was incredible and unbelievable. For all the right reasons.


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Comments [10]

quazione from Peekskill, NY

Dan Montezposted
October 16 near Peekskill, NY
So, here’s the deal folks. Gotta post this on Fran's page, because she is to humble to say all this. I don’t usually write something like this, because then my singers want more money:) However, if any thing deserves to be viral this does! Singers, directors, and opera lovers: please post and forward this as quickly as possible--and no, I’m not just trying to sell tickets. All of you have a rare opportunity, maybe once in a life-time to hear NORMA done better than any recording you have heard. Francesca Mondanaro is ten times better that the current Norma at the MET this fall. And the one at the MET IS GOOD!! But not only that, Francesca, is singing this in a way that will astound even the most hardened, judgmental opera connoisseurs. Her interpretation, voice, and technique are all shocking. She has spent years perfecting this seminal role--one of the most difficult to sing in the repertoire. Every major soprano has tried to sing this thing--none have touched the grace and splendor of Francesca’s interpretation. Every rehearsal was a master class and a thrill ride. I am a very judgmental singer myself. I am awestruck. Bottom line, you will never hear anyone sing this role any better than this--perhaps in your lifetime. You must come to one of the two performances we have to hear this in either Yorktown or White Plains. If you claim to love opera, this is something you must not miss. Please forward this to everyone in the business or who cares about opera. People need to know Francesca as the icon she has become. I feel blessed to have her sing at my small company, even though I know she has begun singing at the big opera houses.

Oct. 25 2013 12:28 PM
CastaDiva from NYC

To Brunhilde from NYC: Angela Gheorghiu did withdraw from the Met's Faust two seasons ago reportedly because she hated the production----and is now off the Met's roster.

Sep. 30 2013 11:13 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Dear Fred, caught your interview last evening on AlJazeera tv about City Opera. As for these updating and thrashing of operas, I have a confession to make. I watched the Las Vegas setting of Rigoletto and actually enjoyed it. Only watched the first act and do not know what the rest of the opera was like. Do not know if I would have disliked it as I have really disliked the recent Met productions of Traviata, UnBallo, Macbeth (Ugh),Tosca, etc. I think the Macbeth also had fascists.

Sep. 11 2013 02:54 PM

I can't agree more with the previous posts. I don't remember when it started, but I do remember seeing performances directed by Hollywood celebrities than were just awful. I, for one, do not need to see/hear operas in contemporary settings. They were written, when they were written and should be staged with that as the jumping off point for directors/producers. I agree that singers should either protest or walk out and opt out of performances that are such shams. I also think it is up to the opera companies to stop using gimmicks to get audiences, we'll come as long as it is good, and part of being good is sticking to the composers' intent. organman77

Sep. 11 2013 01:15 PM
Arden Anderson-Broecking from Connecticut

I have no problem with a certain amount of innovation, BUT to totally destroy the composer's intent is, as a previous writer said, "sick.
It seems as though these smart-aleck concept directors want to desecrate
and destroy some of the most magificent musical art ever created. Opera is after lal the ultimate theater. It has everything, vocal and orchestral grandeur, and drama - the combination of music and the human voice is almost unsurpassable. These very small little people who think they know better than the composer what we deserve to see and hear are simply displaying their own inability to accept something greater than themselves. I also concur with the folloiwng
Singers, Revolt!!!!!!

Sep. 10 2013 10:25 AM
Brunnhilde from NYC

I can't stand it! I think it's time singers join together and walk out on these outrageous productions.

Sep. 07 2013 01:26 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

There is a sickness infecting opera productions. Trashing of operas, cheapo sets, etc. What arrogance on the part of those responsible. Some of these opera updates and revisions are revolting. What is the reason for all these fascists. To Mak, Miss Saigon was really Madame Butterfly and Rent was LaBoheme. Years ago, there was a broadway production of Aida based on the Old South.

Sep. 07 2013 10:18 AM
Fred Plotkin

To William: Pollione was dressed, I am guessing, as an Italian Fascist senior police or military person. As such, he was a Roman the way Pollione is the original version of Norma. Never mind that the Italian Fascists did not occupy France. Where this production drew from World War Two is that Norma (with Bartoli, a Roman, channeling a Roman actress) was apprehended for betraying her "French" co-citizens and then had her hair cut off, as was done to women who collaborated with the enemy. Then, of course, she had to be set on fire, and that was a fiasco on the night I attended. I am told that it was impressive on other occasions. I don't think that the production bore any message for Austrians or, for that matter, anyone else. That said, if it was the Salzburg Festival that was able to persuade Bartoli to play Norma (or perhaps it was her wish and they supported it), we can be grateful for that. The singing was exciting, the acting fantastic and her individual performance achieved an almost otherworldly inspiration that few actresses or opera singers can even get near.

Sep. 07 2013 03:51 AM

Sounds like opera-hell,Fred-I'm just waiting for the day that someone does a production with Cio-Cio San as Hello Kitty. But maybe, when the
interpretation strays so far from the original intent, it should be called something other than the original title.

Sep. 06 2013 08:00 PM
William V. Madison from New York City

What a thoughtful essay, and how strange that it's predicated on such an "incredible" staging concept. I'm baffled. Since Pollione is an occupier, not a native, was he supposed to be a Nazi in this production? Was this some sort of political message to the Austrians? Or was it intended to be as pointless as you found it?

I'm reminded of a moment in Joyce DiDonato's recent interview with Dame Janet Baker. DiDonato asked how Dame Janet had responded when she found herself in a production that didn't respect the integrity of the work. At first, Dame Janet didn't understand the question. After DiDonato elaborated a bit, she replied that she was lucky enough never to have performed in such a production. How times have changed.

Sep. 06 2013 07:18 PM

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