Cecilia Bartoli as Norma

When Norma was presented at the Metropolitan Opera
for the first time on 27 February 1890, it was Lilli Lehmann who donned the
Druidess’s robes, remarkably alternating performances as Norma in the spring
of 1890 with outings as Verdi’s Aida, Elisabeth in Wagner’s
Tannh‰user, all three Br¸nnhildes, Wagner’s Isolde, the title
rÙle in Karl Goldmark’s Die Kˆnigin von Saba, Valentine in
Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Beethoven’s Leonore, Donna Anna in
Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rachel in HalÈvy’s La Juive, and
Amelia in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera!† Such versatility is
astounding even for an artist as legendary as Lilli Lehmann, but it was
admitted on the occasion of a revival of Norma in the autumn of 1891
by an unidentified critic writing in New York’s Times that Lehmann
was ‘not heard at her best in music of the ornamental kind.’† Lehmann
herself would likely have argued that an assessment of Norma as
‘music of the ornamental kind’ grossly misrepresents the opera, and she
would have been right: cantilena prevails in Norma, and the
moments of musical filigree are unfailingly put to dramatic use with a surety
lacking even in Bellini’s other mature masterworks.† Lilli Lehmann set the
standard for MET Normas of subsequent generations, however, her successors in
the rÙle including Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna, and Zinka Milanov, all of whom
were successful in the part on their own terms.† Maria Callas—whose MET
dÈbut in 1956 was as Norma—and Dame Joan Sutherland redefined the rÙle,
combining the weight of voice of singers like Lehmann, Ponselle, and Milanov
with flexibility in coloratura associated with lighter voices, but it
was also with Sutherland’s second studio recording of Norma—also a
DECCA set—that a concerted effort at returning Norma to something
like what Bellini would have expected to hear began in earnest.† In the first
performance of Norma in 1831, Norma and Adalgisa were sung by Giuditta
Pasta and Giulia Grisi, sisters whose voices, judged by modern criteria, were
both sopranos, and casting Montserrat CaballÈ—a celebrated Norma
herself—opposite Sutherland’s Norma produced at least a reasonable
facsimile of how Pasta, admired by her contemporaries for the richness of her
timbre, and Grisi, described as a dramatic soprano but considering her creation
of Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani and Norina in Donizetti’s
Don Pasquale perhaps lighter of timbre than the description suggests
to 21st-Century observers, sounded in the opera’s first production.† Unlike
her predecessors as Norma in the decades before the advent of Callas, Cecilia
Bartoli—who, in addition to the present recording, has sung concert
performances of Norma in Dortmund, which provided the impetus for this
recording, along with a recent staged production at Salzburg’s Whitsun
Festival (in which Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera, who sang Adalgisa in the
Dortmund concerts, reprised the part) that will be reprised at this summer’s
Salzburger Festspiele—is a singer who emphatically is ‘heard at her best in
music of the ornamental kind.’† Whether singing the music of forgotten
composers of the High Baroque or the most popular operas of Rossini, Ms.
Bartoli is a reliably engaging presence, the brilliance of her bravura
technique allied with a seemingly boundless artistic curiosity.† Her previous
performances and recording of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula
notwithstanding, the expansion of Ms. Bartoli’s musical ambitions to include
Norma was surprising.† What she endeavors to capture in this recording is the
spirit of Norma as it was when the opera was new, all of the music
sung in Bellini’s original keys and each of the rÙles sung in a manner as
close to authenticity as modern scholarship and vocal techniques allow.† Ms.
Bartoli as an artist shares with the character of Norma an indomitable spirit,
but Norma is a score that cannot be conquered solely by commitment.

Employing an edition of the score by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi
that contains music that may be new to many listeners, conductor Giovanni
Antonini—a recorder and Baroque traverse flute virtuoso and frequent
collaborator with Ms. Bartoli—approaches Norma with the fresh ears
of a Baroque specialist attuned to the intricate sonorities of period
instruments.† However, there is nothing pedantic in Maestro Antonini’s
pacing of this performance, which in general is splendidly energetic.† The
excellent players of Orchestra La Scintilla play period instruments of the time
of the first performance of Norma.† Rather than making Bellini’s
music sound in any way antiquated, the slightly edgy tones of these period
instruments lend the music a freshness that renders Bellini’s melodic
inspiration breathtakingly apparent.† There is not a single melody in
Norma that is not of exceptional beauty, and Maestro Antonini
consistently chooses tempi that accentuate the eloquence with which
Bellini’s melodic lines develop.† Perhaps unexpectedly considering his
pedigree in Baroque music, Maestro Antonini displays an instinctive
comprehension of using rubato as an expressive device, judiciously
broadening the pace of certain passages to great interpretive effect.† Also
surprising for a specialist in Baroque repertory, in which break-neck
approaches are often adopted even when detrimental to the music or excessively
challenging to the performers, Maestro Antonini is unafraid of slow
tempi, taking a dramatically vital scene like the opera’s finale at
a speed at which its full power can unfold without dragging.† Bellini was
criticized during his lifetime for being a pedestrian orchestrator, but what he
lacked in innovation he made up for with considerable imagination for creating
orchestral timbres that ideally support his melodic lines.† Maestro
Antonini’s attention to the details of instrumental blends produces
revelatory results, the prominence given to brass instruments showing the
cleverness with which Bellini wrote for these instruments and perhaps hinting
at one inspiration for Wagner’s appreciation of Bellini’s music.† As in
many bel canto scores, the chorus is important in Norma,
dramatically essential as the vocal embodiment of the social order against
which the character’s trials play out and serving as the musical foundation
upon which Bellini’s walls of sound are built.† The International Chamber
Vocalists combine the strength of a large opera house chorus with the
impeccable tonal blend of a collegiate glee club, and their contributions to
this performance are consistently delightful, roused by Maestro Antonini’s
direction to startling outbursts when on bellicose form and hushed sighs when
their confidence is shattered by Norma’s admission of guilt.† As many of the
finest recorded performances of Norma are those that document staged
performances in imperfect sound and with all the blemishes introduced by the
presence of dozens of bodies on a stage, the quality of the musical setting
provided for this performance by the Orchestra La Scintilla, the International
Chamber Vocalists, and Maestro Antonini is perhaps the highest yet heard in the
opera’s impressive history on records.

It has often been said that, for a performance of Puccini’s Madama
to be completely successful, it should sound as though the tenor
singing Goro could easily step in to sing Pinkerton if circumstances
required.† Similar sentiments might be applied to the rÙles of Clotilde and
Flavio in Norma.† As Clotilde’s contributions to Norma are
so modest, it would be folly to suggest that a singer engaged for the part
could reasonably be expected to substitute as either Norma or Adalgisa should
her colleagues be indisposed, but it is hardly coincidental that one of Dame
Joan Sutherland’s earliest assignments at Covent Garden was singing Clotilde
to the Norma of Maria Callas.† Sung in this performance by Romanian
mezzo-soprano Liliana Nikiteanu, who also sang Teresa in Ms. Bartoli’s
recording of La Sonnambula, Clotilde achieves greater significance
than she often enjoys.† With her fine voice and excellent diction, Ms.
Nikiteanu interacts wonderfully with Ms. Bartoli, convincingly conveying
Clotilde’s terror in the scene in which Norma contemplates slaying her
sleeping children.† Flavio has the thankless task of being the sensible
sidekick of a man distracted by passion.† The ringing tones of Cuban-American
tenor Reinaldo Macias, a first-place winner in the Metropolitan Opera
auditions, make Flavio’s arguments more noticeable than usual.† Even the
cajolery of a Flavio as accomplished as Mr. Macias cannot prevail upon his
indiscrete comrade, but Mr. Macias’s voice strongly complements that of his

The rÙle of Oroveso, Norma’s father, presents enigmatic challenges, and
it is interesting to note the evolution of the rÙle that has occurred since
the third quarter of the 20th Century.† In the early days of Norma on
records, some of the greatest basses in the Italian tradition could be heard as
Oroveso: Ezio Pinza in the legendary 1937 MET broadcast, with Gina Cigna as his
errant daughter; Tancredi Pasero in the opera’s first studio recording, which
also features Cigna in the title rÙle; Giulio Neri in the 1952 Naples
performance with the largely-forgotten Maria Pedrini; Boris Christoff opposite
Maria Callas in the famed 1953 Trieste performance; Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in the
first Callas studio recording; and Cesare Siepi in the 1954 MET broadcast with
Zinka Milanov, as well as the 1970 broadcast with Sutherland.† Aside from
occasional performances by artists such as Boaldo Giaiotti, Paul Plishka, and
Giorgio Tozzi, Oroveso largely has not lured the accomplished basses of the
past forty years into the dramatic folds of Roman Gaul.† It cannot be denied
that Oroveso gives a singer little around which to wrap his creative energy, so
it is a special treat to hear Italian bass-baritone Michele Pertusi, one of the
most accomplished singers of bel canto bass-baritone rÙles in recent
years, in the part.† Though he is perhaps more associated with comic parts in
the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, Mr. Pertusi has proved a
tremendous asset in serious rÙles, as well, his smooth, easily-produced voice
and native Italian diction raising the levels of authenticity in many
productions.† He brings both authority and a very welcome suggestion of
youthfulness to his singing of Oroveso on this recording.† Norma being the
mother of small children and, taking into account historical data on life
expectancies and the like, therefore presumably a young woman herself, it
stands to reason that Oroveso is not necessarily an elderly man: a bit of a
dull stick he may well be, not least in his implacable adherence to social
mores that condemn his daughter—his only child?—and orphan his
grandchildren, but he need not be a tottering old man.† Mr. Pertusi’s
Oroveso is lusty in advocating war with Rome and initially stoic but undone by
Norma’s admission of her fraternization with a Roman, but there is audible
softening of Oroveso’s heart as his daughter goes nobly to her death,
entrusting her children to his care.† Mr. Pertusi’s tones are not as orotund
as those of Pinza, Pasero, or Siepi, but he is convincing as a virile Archdruid
without forcing or distorting his voice.† The opera’s opening number, ‘Ite
sul colle, o Druidi’ and his ‘Ah! del Tebro a giogo indegno’ in Act Two
are Oroveso’s only solo opportunities, and Mr. Pertusi seizes both
impressively.† Mr. Pertusi is likely the member of the cast who is most
adversely affected by the lowered diapason adopted for this recording
[A = 430 Hz, which is likely a close approximation of authentic pitch from the
time of Norma’s first performance as it is known that Verdi composed
his operas with an assumed tuning of A = 432 Hz], the roughly quarter-tone
deviation from standard modern concert pitch making his music slightly more
demanding on the lower register than it would be in any of the world’s major
opera houses.† Mr. Pertusi proves imperturbable, contributing an Oroveso that
exemplifies his best work.

Possessing one of the most thrilling voices heard in bel canto
repertory during the last decade, American tenor John Osborn joins the ranks of
recorded Polliones that include Franco Corelli, Pl·cido Domingo, and Luciano
Pavarotti.† In the context of this performance, it might be said that Mr.
Osborn combines the best qualities of all three of these illustrious
forbears.† There are in Mr. Osborn’s performance senses of the dash of
Corelli, the musicality of Domingo, and the vocal freedom of Pavarotti.†
Pollione is admittedly perhaps not a rÙle that young tenors dream of singing:
virtually without warm-up, he is required to sing a tuneful but rather pompous
(as befits a Roman proconsul, presumably) aria and cabaletta.† Thereafter, he
is the pseudo-antagonist first against Adalgisa, then against both Adalgisa and
Norma, and finally against Norma, all before having a virtually deus ex
change of heart and resolving to share Norma’s death by
immolation.† Felice Romani’s libretto does little to explain why such a man,
a professed enemy of their people, would have proved so irresistible to not one
but two priestesses of the Druid caste.† Mr. Osborn’s singing ably fills in
the gaps, allying swaggering masculinity with moments of tenderness.†
Pollione’s opening aria (‘Meco all’atar di Venere’) and cabaletta
(‘Me protegge, me difende’) are as chest-thumpingly martial as any music
ever composed for the tenor voice, and Mr. Osborn brings to his performance
ingratiating verve and rhythmic precision.† It was perhaps cruel of Bellini to
ask his Pollione for a top C so soon after his entrance, though if other
Bellini operas are considered the tenor singing Pollione should be happy that
it is not a note higher still.† A particularly enjoyable aspect of Mr.
Osborn’s singing is the ringing accuracy of his upper register, which is
given quite a workout by the embellishments that Mr. Osborn ventures in the
repeats in his aria and cabaletta.† Also wonderful is the soft singing that
Mr. Osborn accomplishes in his scene with Adalgisa, in which he displays a
lovely mezza voce that is not over-reliant on falsetto.† Mr. Osborn
more than holds his own in the great trio that ends Act One, in which Pollione
is often lost in the fray between Norma and Adalgisa.† Though Pollione’s
most obvious opportunities for vocal display occur in Act One, upon each of
which Mr. Osborn capitalizes handsomely, his finest singing arguably comes in
Act Two.† For one thing, Mr. Osborn is the rare tenor whose technique fully
encompasses the rippling coloratura passages given to Pollione in his
duet with Norma, ‘In mia man alfin tu sei.’† In many performances, the
tenor simplifies the coloratura or merely allows Norma to sing an
altered version of his lines: Mr. Osborn needs no such bypasses, and he
delivers the coloratura with the precision of a first-rate Rossini
tenor.† In most performances, Pollione’s last-minute decision to share
Norma’s fate seems artificial at best: few singers manage to convey the
cathartic purification by self-sacrifice that Bellini and Romani intended.†
Mr. Osborn’s singing in the final scene is as musically poised and responsive
as Bellini could have hoped for, and his dramatic instincts shape Romani’s
poetry with rare grace.† There is an audible sense in Mr. Osborn’s
transition from full-throated splendor in Act One to honeyed eloquence in Act
Two of the development of Pollione’s character.† No other singer on records
makes this evolution as apparent or as natural as Mr. Osborn does in this
performance, and no one sings Pollione’s music more capably, confidently, and

Whether for reasons of artistry or marketability, there is ample precedent
for replacing singers who participated in performances of a work with other
singers when the work is taken into the studio for recording.† Rebeca Olvera,
the Mexican soprano who sang Adalgisa in the Dortmund concert performances that
inspired this recording, was an effective, plangent-toned Adalgisa, but there
is no debating that Sumi Jo, a DECCA artist of long standing and a schoolfellow
of Cecilia Bartoli, is a more commercially lucrative presence.† In this case,
however, what may have been primarily a business decision yields a genuine
artistic triumph.† Particularly after a century of encountering the voices of
singers such as Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Marilyn Horne, and Shirley
Verrett as Adalgisa, casting a preeminent Kˆnigin der Nacht, Lucia, and
Zerbinetta in the rÙle may seem counterintuitive.† Ms. Jo is more celebrated
for the flexibility and extensive range of her voice than for its power and
amplitude, of course, but as suggested before there is musical evidence to
suggest that Bellini’s first Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, may also have been more
of a lyric than a dramatic soprano.† Ms. Jo is at the point in the career of a
lyric coloratura soprano at which the tightrope-walk excursions into
the extreme upper register—the sopracuti that, for better or worse,
define a coloratura soprano’s career—are achieved with slightly
greater effort than previously.† If the Kˆnigin der Nacht’s top Fs are a
bit more of a challenge for Ms. Jo now than they were a decade ago, there is
absolutely nothing in Adalgisa’s music, high or low, that is not completely
comfortable for her.† There are both obvious and implicit ambiguities in
Adalgisa’s character, the most significant of which is her breaking of her
sacred vows.† When she learns that her illicit love for Pollione not only
violates her commitment to chastity but also betrays her devotion to her best
friend and mentor, Norma, she is torn between her desire for her lover—for
whose sake she seemingly has prepared herself to abandon all that she holds
dear—and her duty to her community.† Romani leaves Adalgisa as one of the
most notable ‘loose ends’ in opera: after her exquisite scene with Norma in
Act Two (‘Mira, o Norma’), she simply disappears.† There are no stage
directions to document her presence in the final scene, so her occasional
appearance in staged productions to assume guardianship of Norma’s and
Pollione’s children is an entirely spurious invention of directors.† Having
played her part in precipitating the tragic dÈnouement, does she flee into
self-imposed exile?† Does she confess her own guilt, either publicly or
privately, and like Aida secretly share her friends’ demise?† Does she
succeed Norma as High Priestess of Irminsul?† Does she renounce her vows,
marry a nice Druid boy, and live happily ever after?† No singer can solve the
riddle of Adalgisa’s future in the context of a recording, but Ms. Jo
provides as complete a portrait of Adalgisa as has ever been offered on
records.† The foremost quality of Ms. Jo’s performance is that, the pressure
of extremely high tessitura relieved, the voice is indescribably
beautiful; more beautiful, in fact, than it has ever sounded on records.† The
middle octave of the voice is stronger than it was previously, suggesting that
Ms. Jo has blossomed into a wonderfully full lyric maturity.† In Adalgisa’s
first appearance, ‘Sgombra Ë la sacra selva,’ Ms. Jo’s voice is that of
a very conflicted young woman, her heart troubled by its own machinations.†
Ms. Jo’s command of the bel canto idiom has never been in doubt, but
she has never sung with more facile grace, firm tone, and dramatic involvement
than in this recording.† In the subsequent duet with Pollione, ‘Va crudele,
al dio spietato,’ Ms. Jo sings broadly, phrasing her melodic lines with
superb breath control, and making spell-binding use of her trademark subito
, a skill for which she credits her studies with Carlo Bergonzi.†
Adalgisa’s shame, confusion, and upheaval as she discovers the truth of both
her own and Norma’s relationships with Pollione are expressed by Ms. Jo by
careful shading of the tone and an idiomatic use of portamento that
might have been thought to be extinct among today’s singers.† The trio gains
dramatic impetus from Ms. Jo’s impassioned singing, the duality of her
predicament still weighing heavily on Adalgisa’s mind.† It is in the scene
including ‘Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi’ that Adalgisa faces her
greatest musical and dramatic challenges, and Ms. Jo’s singing here is a
marvel.† The spun-silk sound of her voice as she begins the duet sotto
is incredibly beguiling: it is difficult to imagine any Norma failing
to be moved by her pleas.† The blend of her voice with Norma’s as they sing
in thirds is lovely, and the gossamer threads of tone that she weaves as she
and Norma trade melodic lines are glowing but touched with melancholy.†
Throughout the performance, ascents into the upper register hold no terrors for
Ms. Jo, but—somewhat unexpectedly—she proves equally undaunted by plunges
into very low territory.† Having lived and studied in Italy since her teens,
Ms. Jo’s Italian diction has the naturalness of a native, and her use of
vowel sounds as the foundation for placing the voice is an art unto itself, a
glimpse into a long-forgotten method of bel canto singing.† Ms. Jo is
an exceptional artist, but even for her this performance is something extremely

A Norma without a capable Norma is destined for failure, an
inevitable lesson that many opera companies (and a few record labels) have
learned the hard way, so to speak.† In terms of vocal precedence, Cecilia
Bartoli is hardly the first mezzo-soprano to take on Norma: both Grace Bumbry
and Shirley Verrett sang the part with variable degrees of success, but Ms.
Bartoli is surely the first mezzo-soprano to approach Norma as both a musical
exploration and a scholarly exercise.† It should be said at the start that Ms.
Bartoli’s Norma is anything but a stunt, however, and the familiar drive with
which she throws herself into all of her rÙles is especially evident in this
performance.† It is apparent from the first notes of her entrance recitative,
‘SedizÔose voci,’ that Ms. Bartoli is in excellent voice, and the
‘bite’ of her crisp diction provides fascinating verbal inflections that
illuminate Norma’s inner struggles.† ‘Casta diva,’ perhaps the textbook
example of bel canto cantilena at its most inspired, is unfortunately
the least persuasive portion of Ms. Bartoli’s performance.† Honed on the
quicksilver bravura of Rossini, Ms. Bartoli’s technique is
challenged by the extended lines of ‘Casta diva’—those long, long, long
melodies so admired by both Verdi and Wagner,—suggesting that she is more
comfortable in the shorter phrases of coloratura passages than in the
long music paragraphs of a Bellini cavatina.† The smokiness of Ms.
Bartoli’s timbre also mitigates the effectiveness of the aria’s opening,
but there is increased profile to her singing of the aria as the vocal line
rises in tessitura.† Using Bellini’s autograph keys and a basically
come scritto approach in terms of interpolated high notes at the ends
of arias and ensembles, the aria has an alluringly lower ending, without the
trill that has brought so many Normas to grief.† Ms. Bartoli rips into the
text of ‘Fine al rito,’ and her cabaletta—‘Ah! bello a me
ritorna’—delivers her into familiar territory, the cascades of
coloratura voiced with confidence and control and only the chromatic
scales lacking complete mastery.† Norma’s first duet with Adalgisa conjures
from Ms. Bartoli refreshingly unforced, unhurried singing, but the subsequent
trio finds her appropriately breathing fire.† She handles the ascents to top C
in ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido’—so feared by Callas and other Normas of
lore—with aplomb, flinging the notes out like targeted daggers.† It is in
‘Vanne, sÏ, mi lascia, indegno’ that a few reservations start to creep in:
though Ms. Bartoli’s intriguingly dark timbre suggests dramatic strength
without manipulation, there are moments in Norma at which a
mezzo-soprano’s relative lack of power in and around the soprano
passaggio—where so much of Norma’s music dwells—lessens the
cumulative impact of the performance.† There is no question of Ms. Bartoli
possessing the notes, for that she does with greater reliability than many of
her soprano colleagues past and present, but the basic timbre is weakest where
Norma’s music demands that it be strongest.† She leads the trio to a rousing
conclusion nonetheless.† Beginning with the opening scene in which she intends
to murder her children, Act Two is for Norma a expansive dramatic arc from
near-madness to ritualistic purification.† Musically and dramatically, Ms.
Bartoli progresses with consummate artistry from the disturbed mother tempted
by filicide to the loving friend reassured and reunited with her confidante in
‘Mira, o Norma.’† Her virtuosity is at its most infallible in the
coloratura passages of ‘In mia man.’† If a singer’s performance
of Norma can be defined by a single moment, it is that in which she sings
‘Son io,’ the words with which she reveals Norma’s guilt to her assembled
countrymen.† Perhaps because of the difficult placement of the phrase within
the voice (the issue of passaggio recurring here), Ms. Bartoli’s
singing of this crucial phrase is rather plain, secure but lacking the mystery
and ethereal sense of release brought to it by Callas.† From this point
through the end of the opera, however, Ms. Bartoli reaches dizzying heights of
musical expression, beginning with an account of ‘Qual cor tradisti’ that
pulses with sublimated affection.† Ms. Bartoli’s singing of ‘Deh! Non
volerli vittime’ confirms Bellini’s genius in ending Norma with
beautifully extended cantilena—a sort of apotheosis—rather than a
display piece for the heroine.† In the final minutes of the opera, all
questions of the appropriateness of a mezzo-soprano voice and of Ms.
Bartoli’s voice in particular for Norma are silenced by the stilled intensity
of her singing.† This is not a performance without compromise, but Ms. Bartoli
creates a Norma on her own terms that ultimately taps into the lifeblood of
bel canto and lyric tragedy.

Unlike the rising and falling fortunes of many operas, Norma has
remained a beloved work of which an unimpeachably well-sung performance has
ever been a cause for celebration.† Such works often defy the best efforts at
experimentation, but this performance of Norma is not so much a test
of an hypothesis as a rediscovery.† In a sense, it is like the restoration of
an unusually fine piece of antique furniture: years upon years of refinishing
have preserved something magnificent, but stripping away the layers of good
intentions reveals the original patina, a direct link to the artistry of the
past.† Accumulated traditions have made Norma an exhilarating
masterwork of lyric theatre, but this recording displays what a startlingly
moving work this was from the moment at which the ink dried on Bellini’s
manuscript.† Zealously, grippingly sung and played, this is a Norma
of intimacy and intricacy, its adherence to perceptions of performance values
at the time of the opera’s creation proving not its particular historical
context but its indefatigable timelessness.

Joseph Newsome

[This review was first published at Voix des Arts. It is reprinted
with the permission of the author.]

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product_title=Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome
product_id=Decca 0289 478 3517 2 [2CDs]