BELLINI: Norma (complete opera) – Cecilia Bartoli (Norma)/ Sumi Jo (Adalgisa)/ John Osborn (Pollione)/ International Ch. Vocalists/ Orch. La Scintilla/ Giovanni Antonini – Decca (2 discs)

BELLINI: Norma (complete opera) – Cecilia Bartoli (Norma)/ Sumi Jo (Adalgisa)/ John Osborn (Pollione)/ Michele Pertusi (Oroveso)/ Liliana Nikiteanu (Clotilde)/ Reinaldo Macias (Flavio)/ International Ch. Vocalists/ Orch. La Scintilla/ Giovanni Antonini – Decca 478 3517 (2 CDs), 143:11 [Distr. by Universal] *****:

Initially I was not sure what to make of this new Norma—musicologist Maurizio Biondi and violinist Riccardo Minasi have been hard at work creating a new critical edition of the score used here that seeks to demonstrate, in most cases convincingly, several aspects of the opera which have become encrusted with variant traditions over the years. The most obvious question for anyone who knows the opera and its recordings will be why Cecilia Bartoli? After all, isn’t this a soprano role so gloriously etched in vinyl by Maria Callas, her 1954 mono and 1960 stereo remakes being recorded classics that have never been out of print? True enough, but in examining the original performing forces we find that Norma was written for Giuditta Pasta, whom most today feel was a true mezzo-soprano, albeit with excellent high notes. And the pivotal role of Adalgisa was sung by Giulia Grisi—Bellini wrote the part of Elvira in I puritani for her—and she had a lighter, high soprano voice. So the parts here in this recording are reversed—Norma is the heavyweight while Adalgisa gets the stratosphere.

There are too many other things in this edition than can be covered here. Tempos are changed, keys altered—or restored, depending on how you look at it—and a vigorous adhesion to whatever Bellini’s original intentions might have been is presupposed. Of course the problem is that this kind of archeology is still, despite the best intentions of all concerned, fraught with “probably” and “hypothetically”, so in the end it is still a best guess kind of game, and not everyone will be swayed by it. There is also a fanatical devotion to the virtues of period performance, to the idea that none of these early romantic works, and certainly nothing before them should even be played in anything else, which I find absurd and preposterous, again attempting to turn living musical art appropriate for each new generation into purely historical reconstructions. In fact, according to the notes, there is not much about Bartoli’s revelatory performance (it is not) or how musically speaking this Norma tops all others dramatically, etc.—it doesn’t.

So why did I give it five stars? Several  reasons. It really is a unique and surprisingly effective recorded event that shows the work in a new light, much closer to its bel canto origins as opposed to the verisimo extravaganza it has become. Bartoli is as effective as always—her lower register adds a dimension of drama and color virtually unheard until now, and she has obviously put a lot of study into the role. If anything, a criticism could be leveled that the performance almost seems too studied, too calculated for an already predetermined effect, jettisoning any degree of spontaneity that makes, well, Callas so magnificent. But still I can’t discard the inherent beauty of her voice and her obvious acting ability, crucial in this role.  Sumi Jo, if one wants a “light” voice, is perfect as Adalgisa, a brilliant contrast to Bartoli’s richness. John Osborn leaves nothing wanting in the troubled role of Pollione, and the rest of the cast is extremely well-suited to this “restored” effort. The period band sparkles—and sometimes sounds too punchy, but very well equipped in this traversal, while Decca’s sound is bright and clear, always with lots of depth and bass.

If I want to hear the essence of the role itself, I will still turn to Callas, who fends off challengers with the sheer musical instincts that she brings—really, inhabits—into the character of Norma. But if I want to hear what the fuss was all about when this masterpiece first appeared on the scene, Bartoli, will be the one I turn to. You really need both.

—Steven Ritter

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