Cecilia Bartoli's Norma: Loved Her, Hated It

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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.