Review: Cecilia Bartoli is Fierce and Mercurial in Bellini's Norma

AUDIO: Cecilia Bartoli and Sumi Jo in an excerpt from Act II of Bellini’s Norma

Sunday, June 09, 2013 - 12:00 AM

The new recording of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma starring Cecilia Bartoli on Decca is an operatic minefield. And since mines in opera, unlike those in real life, inflict no lasting harm, let’s jump right in and enjoy the pyrotechnics.

Ever since she included “Casta diva” in her Maria Malibran tribute, Bartoli has been ridiculed for her “presumption” in tackling the music of Bellini’s doomed priestess, which in the past century has been sung most often by dramatic sopranos such as Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas. The late record producer Walter Legge described Ponselle as possessing “an Aida-Norma-Gioconda voice.”

Ah, not so fast: Verdi was delighted that the gentle, ladylike Adelina Patti, a lyric soprano, planned to sing Aida. Today, with our earsplitting orchestras and absurdly high concert pitch, the thought of Patti as Aida boggles the mind. If what we presume to know about Aida is so far off target, doesn’t it stand to reason that our thinking on Norma could also be more expansive? And that Bartoli, who sings both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles, might possibly have the right stuff for Bellini’s monumental opera, too?

The Bartoli Norma is also based on a new critical edition of the score by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi and played on period instruments. Operavore readers may know that the musicologist Richard Taruskin has argued that historically informed performances are radically inauthentic, shaped by “an ideal of fleet coolness and light that is wholly born of ironized 20th-century taste.” But it is no less true that Callas’s Norma recordings are based on scores that had been butchered to make them sound more like Puccini: efficient, streamlined, modernist. (See Philip Gossett’s Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera for more on this topic.)

Though the troglodytes who deemed Italian opera unworthy of serious study are surely long extinct, the Norma critical edition might be seen as a vexed undertaking by those who champion music as a transitory event rather than an inviolable “work” (Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, say, or Lydia Goehr). But why not learn all that we can about what Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani set down before performing Norma? A “perfect” realization of a “definitive” score can never happen, and we will always have more to learn about Normaand Norma about us.

Vocal Thrills

As for the Decca set, it is thrilling from first note to last. Hearing Bellini’s music played by the Orchestra La Scintilla under Giovanni Antonini (right) is akin to seeing the splendidly restored Holy Family by Andrea del Sarto in the Metropolitan Museum’s renovated galleries. The transparent sound allows you to hear colors and inner voices that vanish in a blur when played by modern instruments. The strings are tangy and iridescent, the rhythms crisp and Antonini’s leadership is lively and nuanced. The Act II introduction is especially impressive, from the cataclysmic opening chord to the stabbing figure that underpins the “Teneri figli” melody, here a nightmare’s relentless echoes and throbs.

Granted, the “fleet coolness” decried by Taruskin does sometimes surface. “In mia man alfin tu sei” at first listen seems disconcertingly brisk, with little of the menace of a panther circling her prey that Callas brings to the scene. But the duet works at a volatile clip—with Norma and Pollione frantically thrusting and parrying, both coming apart at the seams. And its dispatch throws what follows into sharper relief.

Gentle readers, this four-hankie Callas orphan has never heard a more wrenching performance of the Norma finale than the one given here. When John Osborn, the set’s superb Pollione, admits to Norma that he has come to know her too late, he sings pianissimo. He is no moonlighting Turiddu bawling to the gallery; he is a lover sharing hushed intimacies with the “sublime woman” he has lost. Similarly, Bartoli’s girlish sound in “Deh! non volerli vittime” captures the human truth of a daughter’s tearful pleas to her father, making the final scene an intimate, family tragedy that also happens to engulf an entire community. Masterfully paced by Antonini, its slow burn tears at the heart, just as Bellini wished: “Dramma per musica must make people weep, shudder, and die through song.”

As ever, there is a Little-Engine-That-Could sense of effort to some of Bartoli’s passagework, but she is a fierce and mercurial goddess of song and a Norma for the ages. Sumi Jo as Adalgisa serves up unfailingly lustrous tone, and Michele Pertusi is a patrician Oroveso.

So why wait for the Fourth of July fireworks? Listen to this groundbreaking and unusual new recording of Norma and let us know what you think.

Norma starring Cecilia Bartoli will be released on June 11. John Osborn sings Henri in Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes at Caramoor on July 6.

Photo of Giovanni Antonini by Paolo Morello

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Comments [7]

Nick from London UK

Thank you for this divine recording (in a beautifully designed pack).

This Pollione humanizes, and thereby intensifies – or conjugates – the drama.

‘No one,’ wrote the great music critic Alfred Einstein, ‘knows what music is who does not come away from "Norma" filled to overflowing with the last pages of this [third] act.’

Aug. 02 2013 02:39 PM
luca from Bucharest, Romania

I first listened to Norma 10 years ago with Sutherland and so far she has been my vocal ideal for Norma with all the breathtaking high notes. Callas’s voice has never moved me in any way in spite of the drama, I guess I loved the high notes like a child loves the circus. In the mean time I met Bartoli, in the artistic sense and she has become my operatic idol. Yesterday I bought her Norma, I listened to it on the subway and I missed my station. At the end of the opera I had tears in my eyes. I never thought I would ever hear such a refined performance, my God that voice is haunting…. I haven’t had tears in my eyes since I was a little boy. She brings such emotion to the performance, and the way in which she articulates the words is out of this world. I will cherish this recording for the rest of my days. Thank you Miss Bartoli. I love you.

Jul. 17 2013 09:07 AM
Les from Chicago, Illinois USA

I too, am a Callas orphan, and I heretofore have always considered her Norma to be THE Norma of the Twentieth Century. I have three of her live performances, and both of her EMI studio recordings (of which I prefer the later, less vocally secure version recorded in 1960). I never much cared for the Norma performances of Sutherland, though I do admit that Caballe' had some glorious moments. I am therefore thrilled to say that I absolutely love this entire Norma performance. Cecilia Bartoli's singing is gorgeous, and she interpolates some variants and embellishments that are astounding. I find her entire performance second only to Callas. Sumi Jo is a lyric soprano Adalgisa, which is the way Bellini intended the role to be sung. Her duet work with Bartoli is astonishingly beautiful as well. John Osborn fits into this vocal schema beautifully. How wonderful to hear the role of Pollione really
"sung" rather than bellowed. This is a sublimely beautiful Norma, albeit one which falls on the ears much differently than previous versions. Callas' second studio recording aside, this Decca recording makes the strongest case for this opera in fifty years.

Jul. 14 2013 01:58 AM
Frank from NY

Hello. Can someone tell me, In Verdi's 'La Traviata', Alfredo finds out about Violetta's sale of her possessions to maintain their life-style, and is quite upset and insulted. Is it possible that because of the censorship of Verdi's time, this part of 'La Traviata' was 'cleaned up'?, that is to say, that Violetta was actually... how can I put this, 'selling herself', and Verdi was obliged -due to censorship rules- to change this aspect of the opera?.

Jun. 13 2013 03:59 PM
Sólveig from Iceland

Nice to read this honest comments. Well I have been listening to my Norma cd. As a big fan of signora Bartoli I just fell in love with this cd. The conductor Antonini is a genius. Everything that he and signora Bartoli do is just pure gold.... At least that is my opinion.The Norma cd. Is very beautiful and enchanting, and it is easy to shed tears. I think signora Bartoli sings marvellously and she have such a fantasic timbre in her voice. The other singers are also good and this team of singers know how to performance quality. Norma is a new or the original version af Bellinis Norma...new for the 21 th century. I just say bravo for the new Norma.

Jun. 11 2013 11:40 AM
beachsiggy from NYC

I heard excerpts of this recording a couple of weeks ago on KUSC. It's effervescent, shimmering, and unlike any Norma I've ever heard before. It's also on its way to my mailbox as I write this!

While I haven't heard enough of the recording in close quarters to notice sound editing issues, I have been noticing the same issues Graham Spicer mentions on a lot of studio recordings in the last several years. The engineers really need to step back from their consoles, and allow us to hear the real sound, without tweaking and tinkering. This as much as anything, to my mind, has contributed tremendously to the sad state of studio-recorded opera. Maybe they are trying for perfection, but the imperfection of live performances in an acoustic venue are much preferable, to my ear, as well as being more faithful to the concept of opera as an art form.

Jun. 10 2013 01:59 PM
Graham Spicer from Milan, Italy

Thanks for this excellent review.

I love this Norma too. Just one thing, you mention the 'transparent' sound. It is the sound mixing and editing that is my only quibble: Bartoli seems glued to the mic (and no, not because otherwise she wouldn't be heard - at Dortmund, in concert form, she was easily audible), the chorus sometimes sounds as though it's in the recording studio bathroom, and it generally feels like the engineers have tweaked and tinkered with it a little too much. It will be interesting to hear the Salzburg live recording, with an authentic sound.

Jun. 09 2013 02:59 AM

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