Cher Public

Racing with the moon

For better or worse, Decca’s new Norma recording will ultimately be embraced—or dismissed—by those reacting directly to Cecilia Bartoli’s controversial portrayal. After all, few operatic roles prove as irresistible yet as fraught with obstacles to the modern diva as Bellini’s Norma.

In recent decades such bel canto specialists as Gwyneth Jones (with Jane Henschel as Adalgisa and a young Jonas Kaufmann as Flavio), Anna Tomowa-Sintow (with Denyce Graves as her Adalgisa), Maria Guleghina, and Carol Neblett have tackled the Druid priestess with decidedly mixed results.

However this important recording proves to be much more than a diva vehicle: a flawed yet endlessly fascinating effort to apply historically-informed performance (HIP) practices to this beloved early 19th century opera.

In his essential Diva and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, Philip Gossett provides a musicologically-detailed yet breezily gossip-filled exposé of the shockingly shoddy contemporary performance practices perpetuated on Italian opera from the first half of the 19th century. Battling the inertia embraced by many opera companies, conductors, and singers, some brave artists have begun to scrap away decades of inaccuracies partly ascribed to a dependence on faulty scores.

Based on a new critical edition prepared by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi, this new Norma CD should prove an ear-opening revelation to those able to set aside years of familiarity with recordings (both studio and live) of Bellini’s miraculous score usually disfigured by hundreds of tiny snips, tweaks, and transpositions, some of the most familiar attributed to one important interventionist Gossett spends an entire chapter dissecting: Tullio Serafin.

While performances and recordings of 17th and 18th century operas have been tackling the challenge of “authenticity” for years, it’s been far less common in the 19th century repertoire, although there have been numerous interesting attempts before Norma, mostly on recordings.

Jesús López-Cobos’s recording of Lucia di Lammermoor from the mid-1970s with Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras marked an important step in returning to Donizetti’s original conception. Sir Charles Mackerras went even farther on his Lucia recording using The Hanover Band, an original instrument orchestra.

But it was not the first bel canto recording to do so: with Capella Coloniensis (founded in 1954 as the first orchestra to embrace new research into period performance practices), Gabriele Ferro earlier recorded three Rossini operas, La Cenerentola and L’Italiana in Algeri, both with Lucia Valentini-Terrani, and Tancredi with Fiorenza Cossotto (now out-of-print).

Marc Minkowski’s L’Inganno felice is a particularly fizzy Rossini recording done with period forces, but Minkowski and his Les Musiciens du Louvre have also embraced Offenbach, doing witty versions of La Belle Hélène and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, both with Dame Felicity Lott, on stage and on CD.

Minkowski continues his HIP exploration of the 19th century next week with an intriguing double bill at the Opéra Royal at Versailles: Pierre-Louis Dietsch’s 1842 Le Vaisseau fantôme ou Le Maudit des mers (with Sonya Yoncheva), followed by Wagner’s Der Fliegende Höllander (starring Evgeny Nikitin as the Dutchman) which premiered the following year.

A master of Bach, Handel and Rameau, John Eliot Gardiner has also frequently turned his attention to 19th century French music. His conducting of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, which I was lucky enough to hear in Paris ten years ago was a revelation: the ravishing colors and sonorities of the period instruments made the work sound brand-new.

His comique version of Bizet’s Carmen with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Andrew Richards is similarly fascinating. With his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner has even dipped into 20th century opera in a 2010 production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

A few baby steps have also been taken in German opera: before Minkowski’s imminent revival, Bruno Weil had recorded Wagner’s Der Fliegende Höllander, along with Weber’s Der Freischütz (out-of-print) both again with Capella Coloniensis, while Sir Simon Rattle first dipped his toe into Wagner’s Ring with a concert performance of Das Rheingold with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Rapturously mentioned by Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times earlier this year, Parsifal with Thomas Hengelbrock and his Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble (the conductor and orchestra with whom Bartoli sang her first Norma in concert in Dortmund in 2010) will be broadcast by several German radio stations later this month. In addition to using period instruments, many of these recordings and performances also took advantage of new, corrected scores.

However, Decca’s is not the first recorded Norma using original instruments. With his stellar orchestra Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi conducted an early version of the new critical edition in Parma in 2001.

Gossett is particularly pithy discussing this production: while applauding many of Biondi’s orchestral felicities, he deplores the reluctance of the singers to similarly rethink their approach to the music—June Anderson and Daniela Barcellona simply performed the same Norma and Adalgisa they would have done with any other conductor or orchestra.

I have never been able to listen to Anderson without wincing, so I was unable to get through much of this performance; however, there is a later broadcast with Biondi conducting another Norma—the unknown (to me) soprano Katia Pellegrino—and it’s an exciting rendition.

The most unusual aspect of Biondi’s performances is his use of a continuo fortepiano throughout—often the composer would sit in the pit “at the cembalo” but there seems to be little evidence that the instrument was necessarily played, particularly in this opera without any secco recitative. It’s interesting to hear the pianoforte during Bellini’s music, but I agree with Gossett that it sounds quite wrong.

Decca’s Norma conductor Giovanni Antonini’s rhythmically vivid direction exploits the skill of his superb orchestra La Scintilla (the period group in residence at the Zurich Opera) to bring out many unexpected colors and contrasts in Bellini’s orchestration. A relative newcomer to bel canto and originally a recorder and traverse flute virtuoso and founder of Il Giardino Armonico, Antonini proves more at home than did his predecessor on Bartoli’s earlier (and less successful) Bellini recording, La Sonnambula.

The mellow traverse flute solo of “Casta diva” is particularly arresting, as are the more pungent gut strings and natural horns, trumpets and trombones. Unfortunately Decca’s libretto lists neither the musicians nor the members of the chorus so it’s impossible to know the size of the forces used.

Sadly, decades of sterling performance both on stage and on recordings by advocates of HIP have done little to prevent embarrassingly out-of-date complaints about scratchy violins or out-of-tune horns that continue to be held by those either trapped in their allegiance to only things familiar or just plain ignorant about this movement of music-making over the past 40 years.

One needs only to hear the fervent overture played with fire and flair by La Scintilla to discover that this intimate, heartfelt Norma may prove a most worthwhile journey in rediscovering an opera one already thought one knew well.

And what a joy to hear the score uncut—it’s remarkable just how many passages are nearly always dropped or changed; the great trio that concludes Act I proves particularly interesting in its much fuller unabridged form. We get both verses of the cabalettas to Pollione’s and Norma’s arias with the repeats strikingly ornamented, as are numerous passages in both Norma-Adalgisa duets.

Despite its completeness, the total timing (on just 2 CDs) is shorter than many “butchered” performances/recordings due to the often surprisingly brisk tempi. The notes in the CD booklet about the critical edition argue that these faster speeds reflect tempo markings in Bellini’s autograph score.

For example, the first Norma-Adalgisa duet pulses with the excitement of two women sharing their experiences of a forbidden seduction rather than meandering with a languorous tempo more suitable to a love duet. A frantically quick “Guerra” chorus is tremendously threatening; its barbarism highlighted by the vibrant singing of the previously unknown chorus, The International Chamber Vocalists.

The most conventional portrayal of the four principals is bass-baritone Michele Pertusi’s Oroveso. He does what he can to enliven a basically uninteresting character, but I find his voice rather light for the Druid leader lacking the gravitas and sonorous low notes one ideally wants.

The Roman consul Pollione has always been the biggest obstacle to my completely capitulating to this opera—his last-minute transformation always strikes me as unbelievable given his heretofore recklessly predatory behavior toward both Norma and Adalgisa. His challenging scena also is uninspired and ungrateful to the tenor.

Decca’s Pollione, American John Osborn (best known for his Rossini roles, including recently Arnold in Guillaume Tell) performs the role created by Domenico Donzelli, the first Torvaldo in Rossini’s Torvaldo e Dorliska and the first Belfiore in Il Viaggio a Reims.

His casting is remarkable since one more usually encounters brawny lesser-known Verdi/Puccini tenors in the role. Despite the occasional more nuanced Franco Corelli or Carlo Bergonzi, one more likely hears instead Robleto Merolla, Francisco Ortiz, Adriaan vam Limpt or Amadeo Zambon.

Osborn’s voice usually strikes me as unattractive and his hectic, pressured first-act scene with particularly screamy high notes in the repeat of the cabaletta only confirmed my previous disdain. However, he eventually does achieve a minor miracle: transforming Pollione into a fascinating character, a compulsive seducer, sure of his allure and not eager to let go of the women he’s conquered. Osborn’s aggressive seduction of Adalgisa is a frightening manipulation, displaying a brutal ego in overdrive. He does try without much success to make his “conversion” in the final moments convincing.

Rather than the usual preference for a an off-duty Azucena or Amneris, casting a soprano as Adalgisa (recalling the role’s creator Giulia Grisi—who later sang the title role as well) remains far from common but it’s not unprecedented. Although a fiftyish Caballé recorded the role for the second Joan Sutherland version, she was probably few people’s ideal innocent virgin.

However, Patricia Brooks, Margherita Rinaldi, Eva Mei, Lella Cuberli and a young Antonacci have done the role more successfully—Nancy Tatum, not so much. Mariella Devia’s recent first assumption of the title role also paired her with a soprano Adalgisa, Carmela Remigio. After Caballé, the most illustrious soprano to try a bit of Adalgisa is Mirella Freni in the second act duet with Renata Scotto.

Even so, the choice of Korean coloratura Sumi Jo as Adalgisa was a surprise. I must admit that the soprano hasn’t really been much on my radar—I’ve only heard her once in person as Oscar at the Met over 20 years ago and her recordings have mostly escaped my notice; however, her sweet fragile Adalgisa is rather touching. While older than Bartoli, she sings with a girlish freshness which is remarkably different from some other soprano Adalgisas.

Surprisingly her coloratura is rather choppy (perhaps to match her partner’s?). And there is a clear avoidance of long loud high notes—everything is touched then gotten off quickly. Her fearful capitulation to Pollione as he intently breaks her down in their duet concluding the first scene is shockingly convincing, as is her devastation at his appearance at Norma’s home.

The announcement several years ago that Bartoli was planning to do Norma in concert was characteristically met with both eager anticipation and dismissive derision. What on earth was a small-voiced baroque and Rossini mezzo doing tackling a role so closely identified with some of the grandest sopranos of the postwar era: Caballé, Sutherland and, most of all, Maria Callas?

Those two concert performances led to sessions for this recording which spanned April 2011 to January 2013, while her first fully staged Norma (again with Antonini, Osborn and Pertusi) arrives on May 17 at the 1500-seat Haus für Mozart during the Salzburg Pfingsten Festival of which she is the artistic director. Further performances will follow during the summer festival there.

Bartoli argues in an extended essay accompanying the CD that her research into the life and career of Maria Malibran for her Maria recording led her to believe that some bel canto works usually thought of as high soprano vehicles were really conceived for women who today would likely be called mezzo sopranos, particularly Malibran and Giuditta Pasta, Bellini’s first Norma and Amina in La Sonnambula.

Adjusting the tuning down to what something close to what would have been the norm in the 1830s—A=430 for this recording—reinforces Bartoli’s claims. She also argues that the darker color of a mezzo contrasts more effectively with the soprano intended by Bellini for Adalgisa.

Surely we have all heard (or heard of) sopranos whose repertoire more commonly consists of verismo operas or late Verdi performing Norma without the necessary agility or bel canto nuance required by Bellini. Though they surely have their fans, one wonders what the composer might have thought of the portrayals of, say, Gina Cigna, Zinka Milanov or Ghena Dimitrova?

Even the great Lilli Lehmann who introduced in 1890 Norma to the MET where she had debuted as Carmen and was by then also a famed Brünnhilde was criticized by W. J. Henderson in The New York Times at that first performance for her lack of stylistic refinement:

It must be said, however, that Frau Lehmann took many of the elaborate ornamental passages at a very moderate tempo and sang them with very evident labor, thus depriving them of much of that brilliancy which the smooth, mellow, pliable Italian voices impart to them. Fiorituri without brilliancy have no “raison d’étre,” and no Italian diva of standing would have received half the applause that Frau Lehmann did for singing these passages as she did. The audience was excited by astonishment at the fact that she could do it at all.

Initially skeptical that Bartoli had any business singing this role, I came away with a mixture of admiration and disappointment. It’s clear throughout that she has thought deeply about Norma and her command of many of its difficulties is impressive.

It’s a joy to hear a native Italian sing Norma (she is one of few in the postwar era—among the others, Scotto, Anita Cerquetti, and Fiorenza Cedolins). However, one can hear Bartoli attempting to use her vivid declamation of the text to compensate for moments when she is overpowered vocally, and, too often, her very dramatically rolled r’s go way over the top.

For those who have followed her career over the past two-and-a-half decades, much of the singing will not be a surprise: the rich mellow middle voice remains steady and eloquent, while ascents to the top become small and breathy—those high C’s at the climax of “Oh non tremare” lack the required visceral sting. However, the long legato lines of “Casta diva” or “Teneri figli” are floated eloquently on an apparently endless supply of breath.

Sadly the “Gatling gun” coloratura that has plagued much of her singing for the past decade has only gotten worse, more detached and mechanical. Apparently it doesn’t bother much of her audience as I’ve attended concerts where reams of these pecked-at notes are greeted with ecstatic cheers. For me, it remains the least attractive aspect of her singing but then I’ve always felt her to be most accomplished at adagio rather than allegro.

The more intimate scenes unsurprisingly shine whereas the more dramatic, public ones often fall short: her cries for war sound puny while the two scenes with Adalgisa reveal a hushed intimacy that is truly moving. The final scene poses the biggest challenges and exposes some of Bartoli’s weakest moments; in particular the “In mia man” duet with Pollione lacks the ideal ferocity and those wonderful rising trills on “Adalgisa fia punita; nelle fiamme perirà” don’t sound at all.

However, her “Qual cor tradisti” (where Osborn is finally able to suppress the “bray” in this tone) and her pleading “Deh non volerli vittime” are lovingly spun on an aching thread of silvery tone that proves most moving, particularly as the intense chorus cries implacably for her death.

That Bartoli feels the need to similarly plead with the audiences of the world for her right to sing Norma is disturbing. Artists should take risks and challenge themselves, and throughout her career Bartoli has never embraced the obvious path. I also suspect that no amount of historical argument about Pasta or Bellini will convince those who will choose to perceive this project as a huge act of hubris.

However, since there can never be a truly definitive interpretation of this (or any) great role (not Callas with Serafin, not Caballé at Orange, not Sutherland with Marilyn Horne), it remains important for artists such as Bartoli to continue to offer up their talents and insights to help keep Norma a living work—rather than something that we don’t need to re-examine as it was already done “right” decades ago!

All in all, Bartoli’s portrayal is a surprising, uneven, yet impressive achievement. In many ways I prefer her to her contemporaries like Edita Gruberová whose hard-edged, impossibly un-Italianate manner always seems so wrong for bel canto. Devia’s uneven recent assumption of the role (performed near her 65th birthday) has many fascinating qualities but one is frequently saddened by her having waited so late to take it on.

Unlike many, I find Angela Meade an appealing artist and look forward to her upcoming Met performances (a friend attended her recent Norma in DC and ventured that she had improved immeasurably from her first attempts at Caramoor) with the promising Jamie Barton as Adalgisa and who can resist Meade’s high D at the end of the trio?

One wonders how co-editor of the new critical edition Minasi will feel about the Met’s presumably musicologically unenlightened production this fall when his wife Kate Aldrich performs Adalgisa opposite Sondra Radvanovsky, whose Norma I await with hopeful trepidation.

Meanwhile Bartoli continues explore new roles: next season brings her first Alcina in a new production of Handel’s opera in Zurich, along with a surprising return to her Rossini mezzo roots with her first Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri, with Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting his period group Ensemble Matheus.

  • Camille

    Also this: is this new critical score one in the continuing series published by Ricordi, or is it a special compilation from autograph/original sources, exclusive to the Bartoli recording and production, which shall remain exclusive?

    If available, how different from the already published Garland version, if Maestro QPF happens to see this, please and thank you.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    The Garland is not an edition or a performing version. It is a black and white facsimile of an assortment of Bellini’s manuscripts_ now long out of print. I don’t know if the editors of this new Norma have sold their work to Ricordi or not.

      • Porgy Amor

        “Do you like IL PIRATA? I like IL PIRATA. Do you like IL PIRATA?”

      • Quanto Painy Fakor


    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      And yes, Camillie, you’re right. The Sir Arthur Sullivan edition of NORMA has the Casta diva in G-major and the cabaletta in F-major. It also has the maggiore section at the end of the “Guerra! Guerra!”

      • Camille

        Yes, I was going to ask you about that maggiore section as I remember it being in the score. It is SO beautiful, that I am glad it has been included. Sutherland & Bonynge also included it in their mid-sixties recorded version, or at least a part thereof--I don’t know if it is in its entirety–so I am therefore accustomed to hearing it.

        One thing I would like to say for Sig.ra Bartoli—right or wrong—she is an Italian singer who is at least trying to bring an awareness to aspects of her native cultural patrimony, and these days post-Berlusconi, that counts for a lot, in my book. Italy is no longer a place where Ricordi stores abound, as once they did. I was shocked, dismayed, and sickened when I discovered this upon my return there. Where it will all end I din’t know but I won’t likely be around to witness it, thanks g-d.

        It may very well be a vanity project or one specially calibrated to her unique requirements, however it may not, or it may be one that helps to shine a new light on what we have come to accept as “bel canto”, in the revival of same in the last fifty-sixty years or so. I am glad I’ve been around to witness it and have enjoyed portions of it greatly but remain unconvinced of some of its scholarship and research, so, sia benvenuta La Bartoli. At least, she’s trying to do something, more.

      • grimoaldo

        “The Sir Arthur Sullivan edition of NORMA”

        Yes, as a young musician pre G&S days Sullivan edited almost all the standard operas of the day for the “Royal edition” of scores for Boosey & Company. This experience served him in good stead for the G&S operas and the many parodies they contain of “grand” opera, for instance compare Bellini’s “D’un pensiero” from the finale of Sonnambula (opening section only)

        with the ensemble “A nice dilemma” from G&S “Trial by Jury”

        Not only is the main theme clearly similar, the syllabic patterns of the chorus in the background to the soloists in the Bellini from 2:45 -- 4:50 is practically identical with that in Trial from 1:13 on.

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          Not to mention the great stretto in this:

    • Camille

      Thank you very much, Maestro QPF. I appreciate your word as it will save me from a fruitless chase.

      There IS a critical edition of La Sonnambula published by Casa Ricordi, et al.
      For now, maybe I will content myself with that one. I presume it was used in the Bartoli recording of same?

      Maybe I should walk on over to the ASCAP offices some day, and look around for the man with the blanket on the ground. Wonderful story, maestro. I so enjoyed it. Thank you.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        Camille obviously knows her stuff and has perused a ton of opera scores. The guy on the blanket swore up and down that he would return, but he never did. I think all the books he was selling that day were “hot” -- ripped off from the Garland stoarge facility after they decided to liquidate the series.You’re very welcome. Wish I knew you faccia a faccia!

        • Camille

          un bel dì vedremo!.

          Camille is very sensitive about having become a shriveled up post-menopausal crone, always blinking beneath her spectacles and stooped over from years seated at her fortepiano, her grey hairs sticking out in great disarray. She is not making any personal appearances.

          Maybe someday I would get up the nerve, caro maestro, but for right now I am

          Yours very gratefully,

          Camille Moke Pleyel Beauchamps

          • Quanto Painy Fakor

  • Bianca Castafiore

  • Bianca Castafiore

    Maybe this is a better one:

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

  • I was at the prima last night and was overwhelmed. I had my doubts about the it but despite its faults (and like any performance it had its faults) it was a gripping evening of musical theatre. Apropos the recording someone earlier mentioned that it just wasn’t a string of arias, duets etc but a dramatic musical dialogue -- if that is true of the recording (which I haven’t heard yet) than it was doubly true of the live performance last night.

    It was definitely “worth the detour”!

  • Archaeopteryx

    Thank you for this outstanding review. In my opinion, the wasted chance of this recording lies in the conducting. Antonini conducts this piece as Bellini wrote it for a large brass band. This is NO belcanto! The tempi are ALL too fast -- HIP doesn’t mean lightweight or unemotional, after all!

    Let me add a few other things:

    1) The Offenbach-Lott-Minkowski ventures are not on period instruments, but played in the period style. Minkowski employs for these and the Offenbach Gala with Anne Sofie von Otter modern isntruments, but for his DG album “Offenbach -- Romantique”, on which he assembles ouvertures, ballet music and the long lost cello concerto, he uses period instruments and the pitch of 438.

    2) The best example for Belcanto on period instruments for me is certainly Mark Elder’s reading of Donizetti’s “Maria di Rohan” on Opera Rara -- he conducts with verve, vigour and drama, but without getting vulgar (as Antonini does, imho). Here the advantages of the period orchestra shine in the best light. He will record Offenbach’s “Fantasio” this year, also for Opera Rara.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      In the score there are certain moments where Adalgisa does have the higher notes. The problem came in the traditional versions when heavy mezzos were singing Adalgissa so they had to switch parts. The new edition sorts all of that out and sets thing right. When Mailyn Horne used to warm up in her dressing room before performances, she often softly vocalized with Adlagisa’s first unaccompanied line from that character’s entrance. She would move her voice up and down chromatically with the same phrase, thus became “the Well-tempered Adalgisa”!

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        typo: Marilyn (of course) not Mailyn -- sorry Jackie.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      I agree that the conductor in the Bartoli recording is annoying.

  • tiger1dk

    Maybe a very stupid question -- but when a lower voice sing Norma and a higher voice sing Adalgisa, does the Norma still sing the higher lines when Norma and Adalgisa sing in thirds in the duets? I think ther e is something a bit odd (but maybe it works well) about Bartoli singing the upper line and Jo the lower line.

    Somebody mentioned what difference A 432 makes compared to A 440 and indicated it was maybe one or two steps. As far as I know, this would only be half a step or so.

    • a’=415 is conventional tuning for half a step down from ‘modern’ concert pitch (which varies, in Vienna it is a’=450, and some instrumentalists, i.e. Galway, tune to this pitch to make the instrument sound ‘brighter’). Some conductors tune a whole step down, a’=392, for middle period baroque (1680-1730), and some tune at a’=403 for middle 18th century pieces, namely Gluck operas.

      a’=432 is considered standard tuning for HIP performances of Haydn / Mozart / Beethoven.

  • Those arguing for a “chamber Norma” — well, uh, the premiere was at La Scala. La Scala is not a barn, but it certainly wasn’t a small house, and I doubt Bartoli could sing project her voice through some of the more declamatory passages of Norma at La Scala.

  • mercadante

    I’ve listened to the first act twice to register the differences, I’ll listen to the whole thing later. Some of the tempi are certainly faster than one has usually heard, but I have no problem with that since the performers are using the faster tempi to make dramatic points.

    The Finale to Act I is very different from any I have heard before. Bonynge restored some of it in the earlier Sutherland recording so one can hear the third verse of the duet cabaletta and Adalgisa’s part of the canon trio. But his tempo sounded like a waltz and Sutherland did not bring enough tension to her opening section and it then seemed ludicrous that Pollione would stand there for so long without responding. In this recording the fast tempo erases that problem. The stretta, however, is comletely different from sny version I’ve heard, with Pollione and Adalgisa having more lines, Norma actually fewer, and no chorus off stage at all. I know that Anderw Porter wrote that Bellini crossed out some things in the autograph and also made changes. I wonder if this is actually what was heard opening night, or an earlier draft crossed out.

    Bartoli, in the part I have heard, sings well enough and is technically competent and has a point if view, but I feel she misses out on some of the grandeur that has to be there and that I am sure Pasta supplied according to contemporary reports. While Bartoli wonders how Norma became a priestess and leader and wishes to play up Norma as woman, she underplays the public Norma too much IMO. Her “Sediziose voce” sounds like it is addressed to a board meeting rather than a gathering of the Druids. It is much too small scale for a public address. Her exchanges with Adalgisa and her part in the trio finale are dramatically presented, but she comes off as Adalgisa’s equal, she sounds like just another one of the girls squabbling over a guy. This may be a valid approach, there is no rule that says Norma has to dominate everything, but even so, I ind it a little limited in scope and underwhelming. Interesting and different, but not quite right.

    Jo, thus far, has seemed exemplary with crystal tone, musical phrasing, and a believable chracterization.

    Osborn I did not lke at first. The voice sounded like a second Flavio was in the scred grove, the tessitura seemed too low, and his ornamentation was more a rewrite of the vocal line taking it up rather than true ornamentation. A second listen didn’t change my initial impression much, but havig decided what was wrong with him, I began to listen to him closer and I did enjoy the musicality of his phrasing, his elegant finish and his commitment to his concept of Pollione as a serial seducer who alwys gets what he wants, a sort of metaphore for the Roman Empire. He fits in with the lyrical small scale approach well enough.

    I’m just not convinced that this is what 1830’s audiences heard. Donzelli, the first Pollione, was a large voiced baritenor with chest voice up to A and head voice to C, as he wrote to Bellini. Osborne certainly does not use ny hed voice. Donzelli’s voice was o sonorous and large that whn singing in Pacini’ s Cesare, he second tenor tried to emulate Donzelli’s stentorian tone in a corresponding phrase in a trio and burst a blood vessel in his throat! So it is hard to believe Osborne is anyhing like Donzelli, or that much like most of the interpreters of Pollione in the 1830 ‘s.

    Similarly, Pasta was noted for her sonorous and metallic voice that lent a tragic grandeur to her declamation. Many contemporary writers from Chorley to Lord Edgeware to Stendahl all comment on this aspect of her voice, as well as the fact that it was not all of the same metal, had certain notes in the middle that were under a cloud, and caused intonation issues. That she was a soprano is evident by the fact tht while she sang mezzo roles uch as Tancredi, Romeo, Armando in Crociatto in Egitto, they were all sung in raised soprano keys, not in the orinial mezzo or alto keys, She went easily to D (probably today’s D flat) and most of the roes written and tailored for her have many pages with singularlly high tessiture. I think Bartoli is being just a little to disingenious in calling her a mezzo. When mezzos such as Malibran, her sister Viardot, sang Pasta roles, they had to transpose thdm down. Other sopranos who took them on; Metic-Lalande, Sontag, Lind, Grisi, Strepponi, Tadolini, etc. sang them in the original keys, as the personal scores of these ladies show. Patti, who was taught Sonnambula and Casta Diva by Pasta’s rehersal coach, recorded both arias using Pasta’s ornamentation, and no one could ever call Patti in her prime a mezzo.

    So I think it’s fine Bartoli wants to try to recreate early 19th century perforance style, and I think that historically it is valid to transpose these scores to fit the voice; but this “I’m singing Pasta roles because Pasta was a mezzo like me” stuff is just crap.

    • You make some excellent points and you’re writing has good clear sense, shows excellent taste and perception. Thank you.

    • Batty Masetto

      The article in Italian that Camille posted the link to makes a related point: Opera houses in Bellini’s day could be as large as 2000 seats, and even in Handel’s day, opera houses that seated well over 1000 were not unknown. Besides that, singers had to carry over what must have been quite a din in the audience. So they can’t have been small-voiced.

  • aulus agerius

    Last night I listened to the first act of the recording -- well, I skipped the long long long intro and began with the tenor’s recit. Personally, I like Osborn’s voice very much -- I just like the sound of it and what he does with it as well. I found the conducting exciting and a brisk antidote the usual languors of this opera -- the Sutherland/Horne recording was one of the very first operas I connected with thanks to an Australian mentor. I don’t see a problem with Bartoli’s ‘aspirated’ divisions: she uses that technique sparingly and, lordy, she provides enough of the Caballesque other kind as well as that kind of ricochet sound I associate with Gruberov.

  • Bart

    Overall, I think this review is pretty accurate from the excerpts I sampled of this Norma, although I have to say I will never put this recording on the same level with Callas or Caballe. This will be an interesting footnote in the history of the opera.

    But I did want to defend Caballe’s Adalgisa on the 2nd Sutherland studio recording. She was the first recorded Adalgisa to sing the amazing messa di voce on “Io l’obbliai!” and Dolora Zajick has sung it this way in her live performances. This is such a GORGEOUS moment in the score that once you hear it that way you miss it very much when a soprano (or mezzo) just screams the phrase out and drops into the lower register after the scream.

    • Camille

      Sumi Jo did not do a whole lot with that grand messa di voce moment. I was surprised to hear such a lack of ability.

      I did not know Caballé had done it, too, as I have never really listened to that recording but maybe now I shall.

  • Camille

    Mr. Mercadante, please!!!!!!

    I am so grateful you have stepped up to the plate to speak your piece and have appreciated above all your mention of the great STENDHAL, and his descriptions of the great Giuditta Pasta, whom he simply adored. That book, “Life of Rossini” aka Vie de Rossini, used to be a prized possession but has long since now gone missing. To clarify and edify, would you be willing to quote directly from the book with a few descriptive phrases? For instance, I still remember the “veiled” middle voice quality he mentioned, as it made me think immediately of Callas, a singer I intuit as far closer to the Pasta type voice than la Bartoli. Also, I do not believe I’ve read Chorley’s remarks on Pasta at all. If you could, would you mind quoting him as well?

    I do so hope you see this note. After many vain attempts to answer at the reply button of your post I have given up!! After reviewing her entire performance I must add that, aside from a few small felicities, it was a big disappointment, even allowing her indulgence for many a thing. By the time “Qual cor tradisti” came along I was impatient for the funeral pyre to quell the noises emitted by una piccola zanzara fastidiosa, as such it did sound to me. I loved many things about the entire performance, especially the pitch and the brisk tempi and it did seem in part plausible as an attempt at re-creation, but one which had been geared up and gauged to meet the requirements of a protagonist wholly lacking in the vocal grinta one must needs have for such a role. And I am no Callas widow, either, and was looking forward to a “Klischees brichen” performance. A slick con, for my money.

    Thank you so much for your mention of Stendhal, Donzelli (whom I thought of as a baritenor, too, so I wondered about the Osborn sound!!) et al., as I appreciate your input so much. From the descriptions I have read of Pasta, there would seem to be little similarity between the two divæ. Oh, and thank you SO much for mentioning that the Pasta Tancredi, and other such parts, had been transposed UP for her. I was unsure asto which keys she had sung them in and it does make sense that they would have been put up for her.

    Come to think of it, a visit to Il Corriere della Grisi wiuld probably be inorder at this point.

    Thank you so very much—
    Respectfully yours,


    • mercadante

      One of the descriptions:

      Madame Pasta’s voice has a considerable range. She can achieve perfect resonance on a note as low as bottom A, and can rise as high as C#, or even to a slightly sharpened D; and she possesses the rare ability to be able to sing contralto as easily as she can sing soprano. I would suggest … that the true designation of her voice is mezzo-soprano, and any composer who writes for her should use the mezzo-soprano range for the thematic material of his music, while still exploiting, as it were incidentally and from time to time, notes which lie within the more peripheral areas of this remarkably rich voice. Many notes of this last category are not only extremely fine in themselves, but have the ability to produce a kind of resonant and magnetic vibration, which, through some still unexplained combination of physical phenomena, exercises an instantaneous and hypnotic effect upon the soul of the spectator. This leads to the consideration of one of the most uncommon features of Madame Pasta’s voice: it is not all moulded from the same metallo, as it is said in Italy (which is to say that it possesses more than one timbre); and this fundamental variety of tone produced by a single voice affords one of the richest veins of musical expression which the artistry of a great cantatrice is able to exploit.”

      Stendhal also remarks about her facility in falsetto (head voice) that it was exquisitely light and fast and a different timbre from her chest tones.

      So iy is obvious Pasta had differentiated registers. But I dont think the above quote means she was a mezzo, just that she was a soprano with a solid middle, not surprising considering her training and the fact that in her generation the middle voice was considered the foundation for all singing.

      Lord Mount Edgcumbe writes thst he found her disappointing in private concert, “her voice was too loud, and sometimes harsh; her manner too forcible and vehement” but in the theater, ” all blemishes disappeared…her voice, though powerful and expressive, is not of the finest quality, not free of defects…still surprised and delighted me.”

      Chorley wrote of her “large and stately delivery.” “Her recitative were riveting by their truth.”

      So it was a large, sonorous, dark voice, with a veiled quality to some of the upper middle notes, and a difference in quality between her lower and upper registers, though both were strong. She was a virtuosa, but it took hard work and study to become one. Her roles exploit both her dark middle and her obviously exciting and maleable top: I doubt many mezzos would want to essay Beatrice di Tenda, Anna Bolena, Bianca in UGo, Conte di Parigi or Amina in thevoriginal keys. With all her talk of Pasta being a mezzo, even Bartoli had the transpose the “Son geloso” duet down a whole tone, and that was even with tuning at A = 430. Bartoli obviously couldn’t sing the D that Pasta could.

      Thus I find the crooning tnat Bartoli does inauthentic. There is nothing to suggest these singers sang softly. They didnt shout, Verdi’s operas were castigated for forcing singers to pump up the volume, but they didn’t coo and croon either.

      • CruzSF

        Very interesting. Thanks for this collection of reports by those who actually heard Pasta.

        • MontyNostry

          I think of few of them post regularly on Parterre, actually …

          • Camille

            Yes, that would include petite moi, aussi.

            I was but a teener, but, ah yes, I remember her well!

            La Dame aux camélias

      • Camille

        Thank you SO much fo your kind reply, Mr. Mercadante, for I am just thrilled!
        Yes, that is exactly the passage in Stendhal I recall reading, and I, too, tended to discount the desciption of her as “mezzosoprano” as one designated by a non-musician in simply a descriptive fashion, and nothing more. I think she, along with the Colbran, and certainly Malibran, kind of bridged a certain gap and more or less invented the dramatic soprano, soprano drammatico, or d’agilita category, and emanating from their contralto-ish beginnings, simply out of their respecive grindingly application to their studies. And as far as I am concerned, the middle voice is still where the proper attention should be directed in the care and direction of vocal studies.

        In fact, I did referr myself over to Il Corriere della Grisi today, and Domenico Donzelli and Giulia Grisi both had a great deal to say on the matter of this latest Norma. Sig.r Donzelli, for instance, was very annoyed by these falsettisti attempts at singing repertory which is not only dramatic but also had to be projected into auditoriums the size of the Dresden Opera, the Haymarket TheTre in London, and San Carlo di Napoli, which I have been in and may attest to the size of, not to mention the cavernous La Scala di Milano! I will have to go back and read more as I hadn’t the strength to concentrate that much in Italian today.

        At any rate, most great Normas of the ottocento, according to either Grisi or Donzelli, were FIRST off, a great Semiramide and then went on to Norma. While I was quite pleased by Bartoli’s Desdemona in Otello last year and therefore kept the door open to the possibility that a proverbial Christmas miracle would occur and out would pop a full blown Norma, well, that didn’t happen, unfortunately.

        I can only imagine the riots that would ensue if she took this pasticcio of hers to La Scala!!!! She has wisely gone north with this project and in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is still king.

        Thank you again so kindly! I appreciate you going to the trouble of finding all these materials and sharing them with us all. If only she had tried out a heavier Rossini role first, or instead, such as Ermione or the aforementioned and obligatory Semiramide. The rolling of every single “r” as if it were a doppio “r”, was one of the things which snapped the twig for me!!

        I bought a very nice album of your music in Italy, Mr Mercadante, and see that you were no slouch at il belcanto, either!!

        Yours most humbly and gratefully,
        Lover of Music of the Thirties

        • Camille

          For those interested:

          I do not know if there is a translation or how this will come out in the abominable, usually, Google translation service, but I urge all to give it a try, to read the articles just published by Giulia Grisi and Domenico Donzelli regarding the Bartoli gambit.

          • Batty Masetto

            I wonder if they would let me have the recipe for the “minestrone alcoolico”? It sounds like something for the diners at Genevieve’s.

          • Camille

            Hahaha! Batty, you old diavolo! I loved that minestrone alcoolico, too!

            You’ll not trick me into that raunchy Genevieve’s anytime soon, though. Not unless I bring my biker buddy, Butch the MonsterMan with me. He’s six feet six and bathes once every six months, whether or not he needs it. He’ll make sure your raucous patrons don’t aim their “ejecta” matter at ma petite personne!!

          • manou

            Batty -- you could of course add Pasta to the minestrone.

          • Camille

            And you could start in serving “Pasta alla Norma”, that is, if the old Rumpus Room started to get a bit more ‘tone’.

          • Batty Masetto

            I think we’d have more success serving up your buddy Butch, Camille. Do you think he’d be available for the floor show?

          • Camille

            Now I am in heap big trouble, Batty, ‘cos Monsieur Camille read this and asked “Who the hell is your boyfriend Butch?”

            I’ll see if he is available for shows.
            He’s the type that calls Hunding and Hagen little “sissypants”.
            That’s how tough a varmint he is, old Butch boy. Sweet on me, though.

            I am thinking that the Rumpus Room is modelled upon several of those SoMa area clubs I done seen. Not fit for a petite personne.

          • Batty Masetto

            Not at all, it’s a family place, Camille. Well, for some types of families.

            It helps if the kids don’t freak out every time the Swat team arrives.

          • Camille

            Home sweet home, jest like back home in Kentucky!!

            I already received word back from Butch the MonsterMan. He has apparently been ‘californicated’, and now decided to go into ‘sensitivity sensing sessions’ down at Esalen!!!!! Can you beat that!! Woulda never thunk it of him!

            So, we’ll have to wait it on out to see if he will be available for dancing @ the ol’ Rumpus Room.

            You might lure him with french fried gator chops, though. Big fella loves ’em!

            I’ll keepya posted, Batty!

        • Camille

          N.b. that should read “their respective grindingly DILIGENT applicationto their studies.”…ecc.

      • luvtennis

        I have always felt that contemporary descriptions of Pasta are pretty much how I would describe the young Callas. In some sense a constructed voice of many parts, which the owner, for a time, wielded into an incredibly expressive instrument.

        • Camille

          Right. Me, too.

          However, perhaps I should read a bit more about it as that may be too facile and felicitous a judgment.

          Anyway, it certainly does NOT sound like a description of Bartoli’s instrument. That “Sediziose voci”, for starters, was a festival of tremorous sound and rrrrrolled “erre”‘s to such an extent that it undid any of the import or intention of that all-important opening recitativo.

          • luvtennis

            Oh my goodness yes!

            Niel Rishoi uploaded a you tube excerpt from 20 years ago that showed how many changes the years have exacted on the Bartoli voice. No shame in the aging of an instrument. The issue is that Bartoli NEVER had the sort of instrument for Norma. Nor the personality. She is jittery and mercurial. The voice and manner are very extrovert.

            I am all for singers testing his or her wings. And certainly her fans still adore her and that too is understandable. I love Sutherland, but I still wish her recordings of Athalia and Anna Bolena had gone to different singers….

          • ‘jittery and mercurial’ indeed. A mezzo-carattere singing classic drama. Ridiculous.

  • Personally, I think that Caballe’s Adalgisa is one of the highlights of her career on record : a sincere (for once), touching portrayal, mostly gorgeously sung and phrased.

    • Camille

      Cerquetti-Farrellisimo—similarly, I had repeated problems logging in to reply to your clear and careful plotting of the various pitch numberings, and I wish to thank you so much for taking the time to do so. I had forgotten some and didn’t know the others, like the 403 Hz for Glucpk’s works—that very interesting to me, for it would make mmost of his protagonista roles, Armide and the like, pretty fairly the province of what would be called “mezzo-soprano” in today’s categorisational system, and seemingly, much more the province of the “singing actress”.

      For years now I’ve had my little klavier tuned at 442 Hz, and I swear--I am setting it back to 432. I always listen carefully to the Met orchestra tune up whilst giving the A, and I swear to g-d, it always seems higher than a cat’s back! I wish I knew exactly at which pitch they tuned, it is at least 440+.

      In Vienna, just think, those Queen of the Nights are singing very much closer to F#, than not! Daunting and only for the fearless and gifted! Dessay in her youthful prime, e.g.

  • Camille

    I do wonder if this Norma revival will be sufficient spark to flame up a similar one for the ‘not unworthy of her sisters’ Beatrice di Tenda, a work which really DOES need all the help it can get.

    Since la Ceci is so intent on summoning up the soul of Giuditta, would that not be the next stop on the bus and truck tour? Or are you old boys at Decca unwilling to go that far?

  • oedipe

    Antonacci was recently offered the role of Norma and accepted. However, after a sleepless night, the next day she called to turn down the offer.

    IMO Antonacci made a wise decision in turning down Norma at this stage of her career. There are other singers who can tackle the role and do a good job in it.

    I think Antonacci is very daring as is, her projects are among the most original in all of opera: Fauré’s Pénélope in June at the TCE, Brunehilde in Reyer’s Sigurd at Grand Théâtre de Genève in October 2013, Chimène in Le Cid at the Paris Opera in March 2015.

    • MontyNostry

      Daring, maybe, but also quite crafty in taking on roles in relatively obscure operas in which she can’t be so readily compared to numerous famous singers of the recent past. OK, there are recordings of Crespin (I believe) and Norman as Pénélope and of Bumbry as Chimène, but they don’t have huge currency and hardly anyone has seen any of those three operas in the theatre.

      • oedipe

        I’d rather call it career management. She is no longer in her prime and with roles like these she can make a mark; she is unlikely to do that with Norma, IMO.

    • Camille

      Œdipe: are you—you MUST—going to see Fauré’s opera?

      Please report back with all details. I can hardly wait to hear.

      • oedipe

        Yes Camille, of course.