Cher Public

You’ve got to climb Mount Everest

In this Sunday’s New York Times, Our Own JJ (not pictured except in spirit) examines why Bellini’s Norma should be considered “the Everest of Opera.”

  • CwbyLA

    It was a great read! Wonderful examples.

  • Great piece, JJ. You nailed all the aspects of the role. Norma and Isolde are my two favourite roles in all of opera.

  • Satisfied

    Yay, JJ! I’m going to wait until I get my Sunday Times so as to fully appreciate this store in all of its glory!

  • PCally

    Does anyone know if there are any pre-1980 live Scotto Norma recordings available to purchase? She sounds INCREDIBLE in those Firenze clips!!

  • This article reminds me that I’ve never heard La Gencer’s Norma. Any recommendations? The La Scala one from 1965 sounds like it would be a bit late in the game for Simionato (whose Adalgisa from 10 years earlier I love).

  • PCally

    Also wanted to post this: some of it is pretty rough but I’ve never heard a more purely beautiful sound in this music and since I’ve been told she was a disaster in the part, I was surprised at how beautiful parts of it are.

    • Armerjacquino

      Price had a famously poorly regarded run at Covent Garden in 88 or so, but I think was more successful elsewhere. There’s one from Zurich with Baltsa in the late 70s that’s supposed to be really good.

      • PCally

        Hopefully there’s a performance of hers that I can find. Young Baltsa in bel canto is also very much worth seeking out imo

        • Armerjacquino

          Just googled ‘Margaret Price Norma’ and found this gem from 2001:

          • PCally

            lol that’s pretty funny. You know I love Karita but thank heavens she never got the urge to have a go at bel canto. Her timbre when she was very young and a Mozart did sound imo like she was trying to emulate some kind of cross between price and te kanawa.

        • Marcello

          I was in Price’s first Zurich Norma, but she cancelled a lot. She was obviously very nervous and had to feel in top shape to do it at all. I have also heard the tape (made in-house), but the sound quality is atrocious.

      • rhinestonecowgirl

        I heard a concert Norma in Munich with Dame Margaret and Alicia Nafe in the mid 80’s. Hazy memories, but remember it as rather cool, but secure. And never knew her middle name was Berenice till I tried to find out the date of that concert.

    • Daniel Swick

      She’s really wonderful in the Casta Diva until she reaches the top and then it just kinda dries up. The sound is absolutely huge and luminous…she reminds me of what Crespin might have sounded like in the music.
      The cabaletta is wild but NOT bad, really…I think this is the old Nilson and the dress again.

    • Nyssa of Traken

      I was at the first night of that Norma at Covent Garden and I can confirm it was a car-crash from the off. She very much gave the impression she did NOT want to be there. Which was a pity because I saw her do a charming Fiordiligi there a few years earlier.

      • CarlottaBorromeo

        Actually I remember that Casta Diva went ok that night but the wheels came off in the cabaletta and that was that… She hadn’t rehearsed very much and most unusually for her she was less than well prepared…

        Later performances didn’t really improve and she eventually cancelled. Management decided not to put Jane Eaglen on even though she had done much of the rehearsals. Lynne Strow Piccolo came at very short notice and had a great deal of trouble with the gong… it was not an inspiring evening…

  • actfive

    Terrific article. Cogent analysis that is also just fun to read. And the clips are magical--I was amazed at how good Callas sounded in that ’65 Norma…


    Excellent piece and I have always been a fan of Scotto’s Norma. She sang the truth. Nice to see kind words about Jane Eaglen too although she was never a dramatic success in that role. There’s a pirate from her first performances with Mauceri conducting that’s so full of promise you want to cry. Bravo J.J. !

  • Art Arcas

    “Norma has been portrayed as this strong warrior woman,” Ms. Radvanovsky said. “But she is a mother and a wife. She is like any of us nowadays: trying to have a big career, a formidable career, and at the same time trying to have a personal life. Trying to find that balance.”
    Are you for real, Sondra Radvanovsky?

  • Rowna Sutin

    Is it possible to read this excellent overview and not pine for a mention of your personal favorite Norma(s)? So for me Caballe, that mistress of seamless line, the standard bearer for floaty high notes, and full bodied ones too, was a perfect Norma. I know the story, follow the libretto, but it is the music that carries this role, so I don’t know if she adds new meaning to one or another phrase. There is a Sat. matinee Met broadcast I have heard on Sirius that is plain, divine. And honorable mention must go to Sutherland, who I actually heard in her debut season as the Druid Priestess oh so many years ago. Some people reading this thread may not know that according to reliable books, Flagstad was offered Norma. She said yes, then no. Pity.

    • Rosina Leckermaul

      Totally agree about that Caballe broadcast. My favorite Norma.

      • Rowna Sutin

        Great minds . . .

    • I don’t have a Caballe Norma. What is the recommended CD recording? The audio of the famous video with Vickers/Veasey?

      • fletcher

        Oh man, I have that one on Opera d’Oro and the sound is almost impressively terrible. Everyone sounds underwater. There’s a studio one under Cillario (?) with Cossotto and Domingo but I’ve never heard it.

        • Porgy Amor

          Yes, Cillario, who apparently was a favorite conductor of Caballé’s. Sometimes a diva (especially one with a reputation for not being the hardest worker) may like a conductor for reasons listeners will not share.

          The RCA seems like a can’t-miss on paper, as it had great voices in good shape, but it is a dull set right from the prelude. Some people in a studio make pleasant sounds without digging very deep, the London orchestra provides flabby, ill-defined accompaniment, and it coasts along without meaning much. Of the four big stars (Ruggero Raimondi is there too), Cossotto is the most awake, and this is probably a better souvenir of her Adalgisa than the earlier hack job with Souliotis and Del Monaco.

          It’s one I keep just because I like its “cosmetics,” but every time I get it off the shelf, it’s as much of a missed opportunity as I remembered. At least it’s available cheaply now.

      • Rowna Sutin

        Oh Kashania -- I am not a collector of recordings -- there are so many on this site who are really knowledgable about this. I listen to Sirius and happened upon a performance from the Met with Caballe. I only listened to parts, but I caught the entire Casta Diva which was superb.

    • Daniel Swick

      Rowna, you brat! You saw Sutherland in her debut season?!

    • Peter

      There were two Caballe broadcasts of Norma from the Met: one with Cossotto and a 2nd a few years later with Verrett. I was at the one with Verrett. I think it was 1976. Caballe was not in great voice but Verrett was on fire! It was almost like “anything you can do, I can do better”. Btw, the evening’s performance was Sutherland and Pavarotti in Puritani!

  • Rowna Sutin

    Oh and another point: so glad to see you on the pages of the NYTimes. Bravo! Your compilations of vocal examples, plus your overall knowledge makes you a perfect match with this venerable institution.

  • CwbyLA

    I just realized today that all three of the principals, SR, JDD, and JC, singing in the Norma production at the Met are known for their quick vibratos. I wonder if the decision to cast those three were intentional.

    • Camille

      This made me wonder, too, and I carried your thought into the performance. No matter, vibratos affluter or not, they worked closely with one another to make it work. I had been afraid, VERY afraid….

  • Parpignol

    great piece! I love the account of “In mia man”--

  • Dan Patterson

    What a great article, JJ. Scotto was my first live Norma as well, in CIncinnati about the same time as the Houston performance. She was incredibly moving. And nice to see you writing for the Gray Lady.

    • Dan Patterson

      And by the way, what DID happen when Scotto brought her Norma to the Met? I heard conflicting reports, and of course she bowed out of the broadcast. She was so stunning in Cincinnati that I couldn’t believe reports I heard of a real debacle. Can anyone shed light on this?

      • Chad Marcel

        I heard a pirate tape of Opening Night. Someone shouted out Maria Callas’ name when Scotto came on stage. Then, after a beautiful “Casta Diva,” she came to grief in the cabaletta and the audience booed her horribly. The rest of the performance was quite good though, I thought. To Scotto’s credit, that cabaletta is a really difficult sing in my opinion. I can’t quite describe it -- I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s an ugly piece of music -- it’s just -- very difficult to make it flow and sound pleasing to the ear. It’s my least favorite part of “Norma.”

        • Dan Patterson

          Thanks for the report, Chad. When I saw her in Cincinnati, she managed the cabaletta well enough but I remember thinking that, coming after the sublime “Casta diva,” the cabaletta was almost a trashy piece of music.

          • Armerjacquino

            Plus, dramatically I think it only really makes sense if ‘Casta Diva’ has been played with a full-on subtext that she’s thinking about Pollione throughout; but most sopranos understandably opt for a generalised ‘devotion’ facial expression so they can concentrate on singing the damn thing.

          • Camille

            Not exactly trashy, but just a rewrite of an earlier cabaletta from Bellini’s Bianca e F(G)ernando. It was his first big deal opera and a part of Bianca’s opening exposition scene. Don’t recall now why the rewrite.

        • Rosina Leckermaul

          The night I saw it, she was being so cautious that the entire performance went limp. It was as if she had lost all confidence.

        • Camille

          Oh that is interesting as Verrett was booed, instead, after the end of “Casta diva”. Unfairly, I felt. She was quite resentful and really socked out the cabaletta.

          I was remembering her breakdown at the end of “Teneri figli” today. Very scary to watch as it was evident she was truly in tears and most likely not about those kids, either.

          • Daniel Swick

            Please explain…Verrett had a break down?

            • Camille

              Let me clarify as succinctly as possible: she began to tear up and sob after finishing the opening recitativo of Act II “Dormono entrambi”. Somehow she got out her orders to Clotilde, but she was still sobbing by the time Adalgisa arrived. Obratzsova did an heroic job of playing visiting nurse, and really came to her aid to bolster her up and complete the duet. She was not an perhaps an ideal Adalgisa, but she was at that instance a good colleague and helped the show out.

              This was in the spring of 1979. I understand her earlier Boston Normas were a whole lot more successful. I’ve heard a broadcast of one of her Normas and felt it pretty good, by today’s standard anyway….

  • Paul Johnston

    I just came from the final dress rehearsal and it was powerful, poignant and beautifully sung and nicely staged.

    • Armerjacquino

      Sounds promising, although I think all theatre is improved by the odd gimmick from time to time (and I know three old burlesque broads who would agree)

      • Paul Johnston

        You mean they’re reviving Gypsy? lol
        In 2000 we went to Italy and I wanted to go to Milan and make my pilgrimage to La Scala until I saw the the show they were doing in July was West Side Story!

        • CKurwenal

          Didn’t that star Caballe’s daughter as Maria? I’d have been quite curious to have heard that!

          • Paul Johnston

            I never got far enough to check the cast. I wondered what language they sang it in?

  • Camille

    Notes on NORMA!

    yes, dears, your old correspondent Camille was THERE!. Today at the Dress Rehearsal, that is.

    I am retiring to my récamier at the moment after limping on home. As this was a rehearsal and not a paid performance, I will have few things to say, and mostly about the production, as that will not vary. About the three main singers, I will only offer this: You should not tarry but hurry on down to see and hear them. NO, it is not Maria, nor Ebe, nor is it Mario, Mario, MARIO!, but they are all doing their level best and pitching their “A” games. The production………….?
    Can someone please, please, please pay the electricity bill for the Metropolitan Opera Association so that we may actually be able to see something on stage once in a while? Oh, I forgot — it’s the Foresta d’Irminsul and there’s NO electricity there!

    Ciao! Bis später, Kinder und schafft neues!

    • Paul Johnston

      I’m sure it will be well lit for the Live in HD

    • Kenneth Conway

      Another gloomy, dreary, and underlit “new” production at the Met? Oh, joy.

      • Camille

        Or, as my alter ego sings…”O GIOIA!!!”

        And then drops dead.

        Yes, I’m rather certain it’ll be lit up for the nice people watching on HD. Us poor dumb schmucks in the theatre who pay mucho dollares can just hump it.

        It’s not as dark maybe as Wagner operas, the Tristan and Tannhäuser, e.g., I GUESS….

  • Camille

    About the Norma, I have this to add:

    The score does not describe “l’abitazione di Norma”. That would be found in the stage books somewhere. Whatever. Somehow, I doubt that “l’abitazione di Norma” was the interior of The Great Pumpkin. You’ll see what I mean. And Norma needs some good gay friends, as those draperies have GOT to GO! Oscar Wilde would have DIED!

    For the rest, it looks smething like The Blair Witch Project, or I don’t know, Game of Thrones, maybe? There were some nice touches with the direction of the chorus…not the usual inert clump of guyz. Does McVicar like to hear lusty roars out of a crowd of men? There was an apt one at mention of “Guerra!”, which made sense.
    The Three Weyrd Sisters showed up from MacBeth at Norma’s entrance, a bit weird but I guess appropriate, and oh yes, it looked liked a couple guys playing Amfortas were brought in with the first clump of guys in the first act.

    The direction and interaction between Norma and Pollione made a great deal of sense to me, in fact, the only time I’ve ever had the sense that Pollione willing relinquishes his life out of this belated recognition of his true love. The kids were very cute! Flavio and Clotilde were both extra good and strongly cast, always a plus.

    It’s just not readily apparent to me why it was necessary to replace one fugly production with another fugly production. Other than for the effect of Il ROGO! (as Azucena always ejaculates!), and which made for a much more interesting and satisfactory ending over that of 2001.

    I objected to Norma’s characterization as a working mother, trying to have it all and balance it all n a busy, busy ancient world. Don’t buy it.

    About the music all I have to say is that Maestro Rizzi kept things going at an energetic clip--no langorous lapses--and my hope for hearing the fabulous and beautiful coda to the end of the great “Guerra!” Chorus, which is first iterated in the Sinfonia, has at LAST been realized and I’ve finally heard it in teatro! Hooray!

    As for Radvan&DiDo&The Maltese Nightingale--you will have to find out each on your own account, as, sure as my name is Camille, whatever I say will be wrong.

    Basta e buinanotte a tuttiquanti!

    OH--Hey! Shout Out to Met Titles Dept!

    You are going to confuse people by not putting all the sung text into the titles. It is very weird and incomplete what is put into the titles (in italiano) and should be calbrated correctly.

    • CKurwenal

      The coda to the Guerra chorus was included in Bartoli’s performances at Edinburgh last year, so if she does materialise as expected over there you will get another chance -- it was a highlight (sensitively enough conducted so that her lines were spun very beautifully over everyone else).

      It sounds like the charactersiation of Norma was not dissimilar to that in the ROH production last year. I felt it robbed the character of some gravitas, and made her extraordinary take on life and the decisions she makes harder to believe. It was all very well trying to make her easier to relate to, but I think in opera we’re fairly used to bonkers people who don’t inhabit the real world so it just seemed to jar.

      • Camille

        Hahahahaha!!! Yes, a thousand times to that last sentence!

        Exactly. Norma should be something of a mystic, or better, a seer, (“Io leggo nei volumi arcani”), as illustrated in the recitativo at the opening. As I saw Ms Radvanovsky in the previous production as well, I felt as if it robbed her of an essential element she needed to Inhabit her character more fully and easily, as she had done first go around. She seemed a bit pensive--as well she should be affronting this role--and if still thinking her way through it all. Most likely, saving for opening night.

        There was one moment in which she seemed to allay the ‘liittle woman’ aspect; when, enraged and striking the gong, she strode downstage with determination and fearsomeness.

        Norma just isn’t a woman like any other, and no Hausfrau.

        Hope la Cecilia does make it over as I’m very interested in her take on things, however much howling in protest. Following the score, I was amazed to see how she respected every indication therein with “Casta diva”, e.g.

  • Camille

    Eat-in with NORMA!

    Are you staying at home to listen to the broadcast tomorrow night, or do you want to eat this before or even after you dash off to the opera house, or Times Square for that matter. This is THE dish for the occasion!

    I’ve combed my recipe books and come up with this edition of the classic “Pasta alla Notma”,
    Fortunately, my favourite is featured in this article
    I’m importing, so here goes:

    Of course, it is absolutely Dee-Lite-Full that the chef specifies “reginette” = “little queens”, for this particular recipe. That aside, if you do not have access to reginette or mafaldine, use rigatoni or paccheri or penne, or hell, just plain old spaghetti, if you MUST—-MAH!—the sauce needs to adhere to the pasta, that’s the point of the curlicue shaped ones.

    With that said, I MUST make a strong recommendation/warning that you do not, repeat NOT use regular ricotta in this symphony of flavours, and take the time for the extra due diligence of looking for the Ricotta Salata—or risk a visit from one of Don Corleone’s minions! Your choice!

    This dish is considered a masterpiece in Sicily, hence the attribution of the name, and should be prepared with all the proper ingredients, with love and con cura. Have a salad afterward or an antipasto before, and buy a good red wine, but not one of those pesante Sicilian ones, either! If you must, finish with a cannoli, just make damn sure they don’t come from Connie Corleone!

    Buon appetito a tuttiquanti!!

    • Nigel Wilkinson

      If it’s as good to eat as Bellini is to listen to, I’ll give it a miss thanks.

  • rapt

    Great article, Our Own! So insightful, skillfully attuned to multiple audiences. I’m glad to have something to send to friends who want to know more about opera that is neither fluff nor hopelessly insider baseball. But I don’t judge the essay only by that low bar (rare though it is for most writers on opera to surmount it); it’s full of nuanced intelligence--just what I’d have expected. Thanks!