The Met hopes to stir up Norma-fever this fall scheduling twelve performances of its new production starring three very different sopranos. I first went bonkers for Bellini’s masterpiece during the previous century when the Met remounted it for Joan Sutherland; “Trove Thursday” presents her imposing Druid priestess paired not with Marilyn Horne but with Fiorenza Cossotto sparring over Charles Craig’s Roman consul at the Teatro Colón. 

One of the first LP sets I wore out was Sutherland’s Art of the Prima Donna, so when a new Norma was announced for “my” second season of Met Saturday afternoon broadcasts I was psyched. A months-long labor strike shortened the 1969-70 season but a settlement meant the Bellini went on as scheduled. I don’t remember if the famous live “Mira, o Norma” duet on Ed Sullivan’s show was televised before or after the opera’s radio broadcast on 4 April 1970 but I was enthralled by both. Affection for I Puritani and La Sonnambula came much later.

In the decades since that pre-pubescent crush I’ve recognized the shortcomings of Sutherland’s Norma particularly the mushy diction and cool dramatic commitment. But I always miss the exhilarating éclat of her florid singing in most every other soprano I’ve since heard in the role.

This Buenos Aires broadcast dates from the year before the astonishing run where she sang 27 performances of Norma with the Met in 1970: eleven during the spring in New York followed by seven on tour with nine more in the house in the fall. She never sang the opera there again although it stayed her repertoire longer than any work besides Lucia—1963-1989.

In all but two of those 27 shows, the Adalgisa was Horne but twice in October Sutherland reunited with Cossotto who would later reprise her role at the Met opposite Montserrat Caballé with whom she sang many many performances of Norma. In addition to recording it with Caballé for RCA, she appears as well as in an oddly abridged version opposite Elena Souliotis on Decca. And there also were Adalgisas with Leyla Gencer, Liljana Molnar-Talajic, Mara Zampieri, Cristina Deutekom and, of course, those notorious Parisian encounters with Maria Callas for which some have still not forgiven the Italian mezzo.

While one might not usually think of the barnstorming Cossotto as a bel canto singer she also performed Bellini’s Romeo, Donizetti’s Leonora (in La Favorita, a favorite role) and Giovanna Seymour, as well as recording Rossini’s Tancredi and singing Clarice in the grossly neglected La Pietra del Paragone and quite a few Rosinas!

English tenor Craig was a stalwart of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in heavy Italian roles during the 1960s and 70s having only come into his own after the age of 40. He sang rarely in the US—there were three performances of Otello at the Chicago Lyric in 1966 but nothing else that I can track down. Otello was his best known role which he sang all across Europe and one he finally recorded at 61 in English with the ENO.

Not unexpectedly, the two divas’ husbands offer support here as conductor and Oroveso.

The director’s recent Met track record doesn’t give me high hopes for Sir David McVicar’s new Norma which began rehearsals this week. However, I am curious to experience Sondra Radvanovsky, Marina Rebeka and Angela Meade competing with Joyce DiDonato and Jamie Barton (probably in lowered keys) for Joseph Calleja.

Bellini: Norma
Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
2 July 1969

Norma: Joan Sutherland
Adalgisa: Fiorenza Cossotto
Pollione: Charles Craig
Oroveso: Ivo Vinco

Conductor: Richard Bonynge

This Sutherland-Cossotto Norma can be downloaded by clicking on the icons of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 files will appear in your download directory.

Norma, last week’s Telemann Der geduldige Sokrates and more than 80 “Trove Thursday” podcasts remain available from iTunes—for free, or via any RSS reader.