Giovanni Antonini, cond; Cecilia Bartoli (
); Sumi Jo (
); John Osborn (
); Michele Pertusi (
); International C Vocalists; O La Scintilla
DECCA 4783517 (2 CDs: 143: 11
Text and Translation)
I can’t recall any previous recording of
exciting more controversy than this one. Not just positive or negative comments—those are always normal—but real controversy, a complaint that this simply is “not”
because it doesn’t match the expectations of the listener.
To begin with, there is Cecilia Bartoli and her continuing exploration of both unusual repertoire and newly revised editions of old repertoire. Following on the heels of her exceptional album of Maria Malibran specialties, Bartoli issued a new critical edition of Bellini’s
(Decca 4781084) that met with disappointment from reviewers. I’ve heard that recording, and what made it disappointing were the exceptionally sluggish tempos of conductor Alessandro de Marchi and, even more so, the over-careful and over-studied reading that Bartoli gave to the score. Surprisingly, tenor Juan Diego Flórez, normally an interpretive cipher, was interpretively interesting in that recording, something he usually is not onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. But all in all, it was a stodgy performance that did not convince me of its rightness.
This recording of
is an entirely different animal, partly due to Bartoli’s greater dramatic commitment and partly due to the much more incisive conducting of Giovanni Antonini. Like the
it is played and sung at a slightly lower pitch (A=430) than we are used to today. Several arias, duets, and cabalettas are taken at a much faster clip than we are familiar with—if you like your
s slower and more “profoundly dramatic,” this is certainly not a recording for you. The orchestral textures also sound quite different, clearer and more biting, partly due to the use of original instruments and partly due to smaller forces with clearer textures. And then there is the unusual pitching of the three primary roles. Norma is now a mezzo-soprano who only goes up to a B♭, while Adalgisa and Pollione sing in a much higher tessitura than in previous performances and recordings. All of this is very interesting, but, as in the case of the
the points made would be merely academic if it were not such a good performance. The liner notes make it clear that there are several versions of
in Bellini’s own hand, but that most of this edition comes from the autograph score. Most, but not all: the famed “Casta diva” was composed in G, but the original Norma, Giuditta Pasta, found that key uncomfortable and brought it down a tone to F, which was the key of the first printed score. Even adjusting the ear to A=430, it is indeed sung in F here.
Several of the complaints I’ve read online point to the fact that neither Bartoli nor Sumi Jo have large enough voices to be heard in most modern opera houses. That is certainly true, but the point in regard to this recording is that it is irrelevant. We are not being asked to judge their performances in a theater, but rather on a recording, and here they are certainly much more than adequate. They are stunning. Moreover, one must ask the question whether or not they
be heard if the orchestration used matched the one on this performance; and then there is the fact that opera houses of the 1830s were, on the whole, much smaller and more intimate than the monstrosities we have today. Were this cast and orchestra to perform this edition of the opera in, say, Zurich, I’m sure they’d be able to be heard quite well.
Of the various principals, tenor John Osborn has the driest voice, but he lacks any real vocal defects and actually phrases exceptionally well. Even though I’ve enjoyed, in the past, the Polliones of Giovanni Breviario, Mario del Monaco, John Alexander, and Robleto Merolla, I have to admit that it is an unalloyed pleasure to hear Pollione’s act I aria and cabaletta actually sung rather than shouted out in a rather beefy fashion, which all other tenors are forced to do at the present pitch and volume levels required for this opera.
More to the point, with so many sections of the opera taken at much faster clips than we are used to (“Bello a me ritorna,” the Adalgisa-Pollione duet, and the first Adalgisa-Norma duet, among others), the music takes on an almost Gluck-like feeling to it. The last Norma-Pollione duet, and in fact much of the closing scene, are sung with a much greater softness and intimacy, which give a far more poignant feeling to the proceedings than the belt-‘em-out style one is generally used to. I am still convinced that Spontini’s
by two decades, is a much finer opera based on a similar story, but since the only complete recording of that opera (and in the original language, French) features a highly defective cast who simply cannot hack the music (Sony Classical), we can only really judge it from the sonically defective 1954 La Scala performance with Maria Callas, Ebe Stignani et. al., whereas here we are presented with a sonically spectacular digital recording in which all the musical and dramatic points are quite telling. The only “conventional”
performance I’ve ever heard that matches this one in drama and intensity is the mid-1970s San Francisco Opera performance with Cristina Deutekom, Tatiana Troyanos, and Merolla, conducted by Felice.
Taken on its own merits, this recording of
is about as thrilling a performance as I’ve ever heard. I was particularly surprised to hear Sumi Jo interpret as she sang (and include such niceties as a perfect
messa da voce
), something I’ve never heard her do before. Yes, I would have preferred to hear Flórez as Pollione over Osborn, but the crazy and often hectic scheduling conflicts for star singers nowadays possibly precluded his participation in this project. I like what I heard, very much in fact, and so can easily recommend this as the best
studio recording in the stereo or digital era. I would not personally live without the Deutekom performance, and I also liked Maria Callas’s early mono recording, but for me this is how a
should sound (and bear in mind that Callas herself lacked the forceful volume of such previous Normas as Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna, or Zinka Milanov). Could it be performed like this in the opera house, with singers who have an equal flexibility but somewhat larger voices? Of course it could, and that is the point of the project, to restore to circulation a
that matches the composer’s intentions, not those of a dramatic soprano intent on blasting the rafters with her high Cs. Highly recommended.
Lynn René Bayley