Norma -- traditions lost and restored
No Norma CD is flawless, but five achieve the transcendent at different places in different ways. Yes, that makes the better choices a bit complex. But I'm hoping further specificity here will help readers make a choice for themselves rather than be discouraged. Two of the five are "live", in listenable but not great sound. I still find them extremely special, because they preserve the two most persuasive interpretations of the title role on disc. As for the professionally recorded studio CDs, even the three best do entail distinct artistic compromises of one sort or another, but their virtues are head and shoulders over other studio sets, and all three are well recorded. Finally, I have far fewer reservations when it comes to the obvious top choice for DVD, fortunately, although a DVD is not necessarily what many look for first.
1 ) Norma: Maria Callas
Pollione: Mario del Monaco
Adalgisa: Giulietta Simionato
Oroveso: Nicola Zaccaria
Clotilde: Gabriella Carturan
Flavio: Giuseppe Zampieri
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala:
Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Teatro alla Scala, Milan
December 7, 1955
Complete Opera – Live Recording
151 min. (mono)
My Desert Island Norma CD is a "live" Scala b'cast from Opening Night, December 7th, 1955, in humble but listenable mono sound, with spectacular acting and singing from both Norma and Adalgisa. (You can put me down as one of those who definitely feel that Adalgisa is a more important role than Pollione; I can sooner tolerate a so-so Pollione than a so-so Adalgisa.) This performance features Maria Callas, Giulietta Simionato, Mario Del Monaco and Antonino Votto conducting. It is available in a number of incarnations, many of them lousy. Although it's not cheap, the one to get is from DIVINA RECORDS. I admit to not being much of a Del Monaco fan. But he's at least tolerable here compared to his usual. MDM's Pollione rears its head everywhere, like topsy. But his Pollione here has relatively fewer drawbacks than usual. As an overall b'cast, the Scala '55 is greater than the sum of its parts -- the Scala audience playing a huge part in inspiring both Callas and Simionato (and even MDM) to give of their best.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md1iQTDoZqs
2 ) Gencer, Lazzarini, Prevedi, Wildermann; Bartoletti. Buenos Aires (1964)
For the title role, the most acute interpretation of all comes from Leyla Gencer in her earliest "live" Norma from 1964 (at Buenos Aires), with an even wider range of dynamics than Callas, including a haunting subito piano in her arsenal, and lovelier vocalism. The sound quality is also preferable to the Callas/Scala/'55. Bruno Prevedi's Pollione is minimally preferable to Del Monaco's but still crude. Lazzarini's Adalgisa is occasionally affecting but inconsistent, rendering the critical scenes for Norma and Adalgisa less affecting as a whole than in the Callas '55. Bruno Bartoletti conducts.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K-_MOJqKHM
3 ) Maria Callas, Ebe Stignani, Mario Filippeschi, Nicola Rossi-Lemini; La Scala; Tullio Serafin (1954)
Maria Callas’s two commercial sets for EMI are less multidimensional than the 1955 performance. Her first recording, selected here, is in 1954, in mono, where the late John Ardoin hears her more the warrior/leader and less the troubled woman. In a set conducted by the ever-supportive Tullio Serafin, Adalgisa is Ebe Stignani and Pollione Mario Filippeschi. Stignani is not as involving as Simionato, and Filippeschi, even given a long upper extension, is somewhat compromised, in my view, by an occasional unsteadiness at certain isolated moments. On balance, Del Monaco in '55, with all his faults, remains preferable. This recording is not as well cast as Callas's later set (1960), but I do take exception to various aspects in that later version. Ardoin approves of Callas’s dramatic stance in that later set -- featuring Serafin again at the podium and Christa Ludwig and Franco Corelli as Adalgisa and Pollione -- and Ardoin also claims that the tension between Norma the leader and Norma the troubled woman is heard in perfect balance in '60. But I find that it is vocal caution rather than further refinement that has dictated too many, though not all, of Callas’s later choices. As it is, there are some dire vocal lapses in '60, despite her circumspect approach. She cannot tackle Norma’s fury without a recurrent tremolo throughout the upper third of her voice, and even her pitch is prone to stray. Yes, Serafin’s conducting is, if anything, even finer than here in ‘54, while Ludwig’s Adalgisa is unforgettably poignant. But even though Corelli's Pollione is in fine voice there and far preferable to his counterpart, Filippeschi, in '54, Corelli too suffers from some very occasional pitch insecurity himself. Ludwig is the main reason for valuing that set. Ultimately, I would agree with John B. Steane that Callas herself makes a more vivid impression on this ‘54 set -- and also, I'd maintain, a more vocally attractive one as well. I might find her even more satisfying in this earlier recording were I not so cognizant of just how much she accomplished “live” the very next year. Still, this '54 set is the first of three strong studio sets, while the 1960 is primarily of interest as an uneven curiosity.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80iFQqBCCyM&t=5842s
4 ) Sutherland · Horne · Alexander · Cross · Minton · Ward
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Richard Bonynge (ca. 1964)
In addition to the Callas '54, the two other strong studio sets feature, in turn, Joan Sutherland and Elena Suliotis. Sutherland's first studio Norma comes from the mid-sixties, was issued by DECCA/LONDON, and was, all things considered, her best. This is a textually conscientious recording with very few cuts and the original keys adopted throughout. Both Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne are at their freshest, and John Alexander attempts some semblance of a bel canto style as Pollione. This is a Norma in which the Adalgisa is clearly superior to the Pollione (who's not bad). In fact, I find Horne's Adalgisa the finest thing on this entire set! The chief drawback is that you don't get the degree of artistic and interpretive genius from Sutherland that you get from Callas and, especially, Gencer, and Bonynge's conducting is uninspiring. But for beautiful sounds almost throughout, this set is pretty special.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l16ZwntLsTo&t=1h48m39s
5 ) Elena Suliotis, Mario Del Monaco, Fiorenza Cossotto, Orchestra and Coro Dell'accademia Di Santa Cecilia Di Roma, Silvio Varviso (ca. 1967)
A polar opposite is my other chosen CD, a controversial set which few really love, and I freely admit some collectors have wondered if I've lost my marbles just keeping it! (Or rather, I've kept a cassette dub of it.) This is a set with many a traditional cut -- and then some! (For instance, it omits the entire second scene of Act 2 with the bass!) As I recall, it reverts to all of the traditional downward transpositions (or most of them). Like the Sutherland/Horne, it was also released by DECCA/LONDON. But try finding it on DECCA/LONDON today! It was discontinued and is only available on a URANIA issue now, to my knowledge. Elena Suliotis was a vocal comet, and by the time she made this Norma (ca. 1967), she is already having a few vocal problems, though nowhere near as dire as those afflicting Callas in '60. Aside from Callas, Suliotis lives the part more vividly than anyone else in the studio, and she ultimately achieves something transcendent in the final scene, where she is almost on a Callas level. Fiorenza Cossotto's Adalgisa is vocally very good, although not as involving as Simionato's, nor as technically impeccable as Horne's. MDM's Pollione is not as alert or as musical, relatively, as in '55. Here, unlike his preferable self in '55, he isn't really any better than Filippeschi on the mono Callas set. Effectively, that puts the first mono Callas set on a par with the Suliotis. In fact, given its more complete edition and Serafin's conducting, the mono Callas has some points of superiority to this one, however distinguished Suliotis's Adalgisa (Cossotto more fresh-voiced than Callas's Stignani), or the superior Suliotis sonics. Still and all, of those sets made in modern stereo, this set has the keenest and most intense involvement throughout, even though Silvio Varviso's conducting is no better, really, than Bonynge's.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usBlpCtTUwU
Artists: Sondra Radvanovsky, Joyce DiDonato, Joseph Calleja, Matthew Rose, Adam Diegel, Michelle Bradley, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi
Director: Sir David McVicar (2017)
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Region: All Regions
Number of Discs: 1
Studio: Warner Classics
Blu-Ray Release Date: November 16, 2018
Run Time: 169 minutes; plus 15 minutes bonus material
With all the discouraging "cons" of those five CDs, it's nice to give an unequivocal recommendation to a very recent DVD with all three principals in fine form, preserved in excellent sound. Filmed at the Met, Sondra Radvanovsky lives the part as intensely as Suliotis and is more vocally luxuriant, with a spectacular subito piano reminiscent of Gencer's as the icing on the cake. Joyce Di Donato's Adalgisa is, for once, fully as involving and insightful as Simionato's, and Joseph Calleja's Pollione is one of the more musical ones out there, with tones that are more luscious than Alexander's. Carlo Rizzi conducts. There is no serious drawback to this set that I can see, and the fine camera work and sonics complement the fine artistry on stage. After a whole lifetime spent with recordings that are "almosts but not quites", it's nice to encounter an impressive achievement like this at the end of a long journey. Of course, this is a DVD and not a CD, which may not be what all are looking for.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0RMFBkLB5s
Of Special Interest
Any of the above offerings, warts and all, are at least self-sufficient enough to introduce new listeners to the beauties in this Bellini opera, without looking elsewhere. One can at least be satisfied that the essence of Bellini's score is captured in each of them. But there are three additional Normas, all "live", that boast such a thrilling sense of occasion the Norma discography would be the poorer without them. No, they are not ideal as a way of introduction to this piece, because of technical issues associated with challenged audio primarily. One should first have at least one of the six Normas cited above, before exploring these additional three. That as a given, these three can then afford one much excitement in addition, if one wants to study the performance history in greater depth.
A ) Panizza Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Gina Cigna, Bruna Castagna, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza (1937)
The earliest studio recording, different from this "live" performance, is on CETRA: featured is Gina Cigna in the title role, Giovanni Breviario as Pollione and Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa. Vittorio Gui conducts. Recorded in 1937, that took five months to complete—from March to July of that year. A pupil of Emma Calvé, Cigna is a rare Norma on disc who can claim direct inheritance of the original Marchesi-García tradition traceable back to Bellini's own day. Her fine dramatic interpretation and dark vocal persona certainly reflect that heritage in a compelling reading. Yet her facility in coloratura is relatively modest, despite her training. Stignani is a worthy colleague there, but one problem is Breviario, whose Pollione is one of the less attractive ones in the discography. Although the sound, naturally, is dated mono, the voices still come through there vividly, and it has a strong sense of acted drama. Even so, the full impact of Cigna’s interpretation comes through more vividly here, in her Metropolitan Opera broadcast of 1937, first made available on the privately issued EJS label. It comes from February 20, 1937, only a month earlier than the studio recording, yet Cigna’s voice sounds remarkably fresher, as if it were at least one year earlier, or more, rather than merely a month's difference. In addition, she allows herself the luxury here of pulling back from a generalized intensity such as is heard in that studio reading, making this "live" broadcast far more inward and nuanced. Illogically, that studio recording sounds less thought-out, while, at the same time, its worn vocal quality embraces pitch problems in the mid-range and a throaty sound in the low, flaws less conspicuous in this broadcast, which features Giovanni Martinelli, a more assured Pollione than Breviario, Bruna Castagna as a fine Adalgisa, more attuned than Cigna to the bel canto idiom, and the impeccable Ezio Pinza as Oroveso. Ettore Panizza conducts. This is the earliest complete recording of any assoluta work, and as a Thirties broadcast recorded under improvised conditions over a relatively primitive wireless, it shows its age.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFjHv33exxI&t=5829s
B ) Cerquetti, Corelli, Pirazzini, Neri, De Palma; Santini. Roma (1958)
A less fortunate piece of history was Callas’s aborted debut as Norma at the Rome Opera, January 2, 1958, which is the stormy background to this historic occasion in this "live" set less than a week later. Callas had had to sing that night under painful circumstances. That was a Gala opening, the President of Italy was attending, and Callas was extremely ill. Her depleted energy gave out during the opening scene, and she had had to withdraw. Incredibly, the Rome Opera had not planned ahead for an understudy! Since it is practically axiomatic that substitutes for Norma don’t grow on trees (shades of a classic New Yorker cartoon showing a hapless impresario sticking his head out from behind the curtain, asking “Is there a Siegfried in the house?”), the performance had had to be cancelled. That whole incident was considered a scandal, certainly the worst of Callas’s career. What came out of it was not all bad, however. It seems the Rome Opera had learned its lesson and now made it its business to have another genuine Norma on hand when it re-opened on January 4th with this performance featuring a notable Norma, one with a genuinely refulgent sound: Anita Cerquetti. This January broadcast has an energy all its own. Gabriele Santini’s conducting may not exactly be inspirational, Miriam Pirazzini’s Adalgisa may lack the requisite poetry and Giulio Neri’s Oroveso its wonted strength, but the combination here of Cerquetti’s Norma and Franco Corelli’s Pollione is tremendously exciting. Corelli does not show that much more sympathy with the bel canto style here than he does with Callas on her second studio Norma with Ludwig, but he finds considerably more variety in the role than Del Monaco in ‘55 and gives us one of the most compelling Polliones on disc, more compelling than his studio reading. The high voltage of Corelli’s Pollione here makes sense when paired with as sumptuous a voice as Cerquetti’s. With Corelli's sheer slancio and Cerquetti's luscious tones, occasionally reminiscent of Rosa Ponselle, this is a partnership that puts a premium on vocal abundance above all. This performance has been released on MYTO, GOP, and a few other specialty labels, but unfortunately, all the editions copy the same flawed source, with dim, dry, boomy sound. Still, collectors can appreciate the history that is made here.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39-QW_fCPdY
C ) Caballe, Vickers, Veasey; Patane (DVD) (1974)
Going by Montserrat Caballé's studio effort back in 1972 for RCA, one would hardly guess that Caballe is one of the finer interpreters of the title role. She may not have the fertile imagination of a Callas, a Gencer or a Suliotis, but at her best, she is certainly capable of more inner feeling than we hear in that dubious set. Fatigue, evidenced in shortness of breath, unsteady tone, inattention to nuance—these are the problems that beset that studio reading. Moreover, despite her voice being strictly spinto, not drammatico, she is usually capable of riding the grander phrases of the Druid priestess with greater aplomb than in those recording sessions. Usually, her phenomenal breath control and keenly focused tone can surmount almost any challenge Bellini offers. Not there, though. Placido Domingo contributes a musically impeccable but inexpressive Pollione and Fiorenza Cossotto an Adalgisa even better than in the Suliotis set. Carlo Felice Cillario’s conducting is more attentive than a Varviso, but not as probing as a Serafin. Ruggero Raimondi’s Oroveso is, however, luxury casting indeed, vocally and dramatically, but he alone cannot redeem that perfunctory offering. To appreciate the true greatness of Montserrat Caballé’s Norma, one must sample a few “live” recordings that feature her in full glory when clearly “up” for the occasion. One such evening, recalling the classic Callas/La Scala set of 1955, preserves a Norma where all three principals are thoroughly engaged dramatically and in strong voice: here, Giuseppe Patané leads a DVD of an outdoor performance at the Festival d’Orange, 1974, vivid in its evocation of a mythic tale where passions are paradoxically at their rawest and also their most (dangerously) bottled-up. Montserrat Caballé, Jon Vickers and Josephine Veasey offer uniformly compelling performances here. Neither Vickers nor Veasey may be the last word in bel canto elegance, but they are accomplished musicians who think dramatically when making music, and musically when making drama. Agostino Ferrin sings Oroveso. Here's a Norma that, as an artistic statement, works as a totality. Some problems with this video, though: Yes, sometimes a blustery Mistral sweeping across the stage that evening helps in creating striking visuals here that enhance the sense of an epic sweep to the whole; but sometimes, the audible gusts of wind merely compromise the musical effect. Moreover, while the sonics here are far better than for the Cerquetti set, voices still fade in and out on occasion, and one wishes we had less distance around the voices at critical moments.
Audio sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLXfvjVtenY&t=1h18m38s
Soon after this performance, while there were scenes yet to be heard in later sets where greatness could still be glimpsed, sovereign control over the full sweep of the title role and the shape of Bellini’s opera proved more elusive than not. There was a long wait before achievements like Caballé’s, Vickers’, and Patané’s would come again. It is instructive that, in the earlier part of the past century, despite Cigna’s inheritance of the García tradition from a Marchesi pupil, Emma Calvé, Cigna's genuine strengths did not extend to ideal control over the fioritura, making her Norma symptomatic of a slight falling-off in the tradition. Yet, despite this, the tradition grew stronger again in subsequent decades, with the more mercurial Callas, the more multi-colored Gencer, the more plush-sounding Cerquetti, the more fluent Sutherland, the more vital Suliotis, and the more elegant Caballé. So it does not come as a surprise that now, after a drought of over thirty years following the miracle at Orange, the Radvanovsky DVD heralds the arrival once again of a new generation which can do justice to Bellini's masterpiece, matching the ensembles around Callas and Votto in 1955 and around Caballé and Patané in 1974.
The aria "Casta Diva" has had a recording life of its own. A small handful stand out for me, some for their artistic merit, some for the striking vocal persona or the sheer "face" of the sound -- and some for the historical value of the recording and what it represents.
I find it less confusing if we look at this select handful chronologically. The creator of the role, Giuditta Pasta, became a distinguished teacher after her retirement. Among her pupils were Carolina Fermi, who also became a distinguished Norma herself. Neither Pasta nor Fermi sang into the age of recording. But both Fermi and Pasta's regular recital accompanist, Maurice Strakosch, had a long reach historically. Fermi also taught singing, like Pasta, and Strakosch worked closely with a whole range of artists after Pasta had long left the scene. Among those artists was the great ADELINA PATTI, to whom Strakosch taught some of the ornaments Pasta used in the second statement of this aria, ornaments Pasta presumably adopted with Bellini's approval. Patti never performed this role (her instrument would have been too lyric), but she often took this out in recital, and late in life she recorded the piece in 1906 with pianist Alfredo Barili, at a lowered key:
Although Fermi never recorded, Fermi's star pupil, EUGENIA BURZIO, did. Not the most immaculate of bel canto pupils, Burzio's singing, with its occasional aspirates, etc., seems to reflect more the depth of feeling inherited from Fermi (and presumably from Pasta) than the presumed musical elegance and style of either Fermi or Pasta. This may have to be laid as much at the feet of the increasingly popular Verismo style in Italy at the time as any failing in Fermi's teaching. Ultimately, what this reading has to its credit is the sense of a part fully lived rather than a faultless window on the music's original creator. But since Burzio is one of the closest to a drect inheritor of the world premiere that we have, she is still worth including in a survey like this. Recorded in 1912, this comes late in Burzio's career and already shows some vocal wear on her voice, and in addition, I admit I have sometimes wondered if this is being played back in the key that Burzio actually sang this in. Yes, this record is always played at the traditional score pitch, but the tones strike my ear as slightly shallow in the middle register, certainly more shallow than the richer tones heard from Burzio in her earlier records. Why would the middle grow shallower with time? Are we hearing this faster than the key Burzio actually used? Was she, by this point, already using a lower key as Patti had? No restorer of this rare record has tried playing it at a lower pitch.....
No question one of the most sumptuous instruments ever heard in this aria is ROSA PONSELLE's. She recorded this at her vocal peak, 1928-'29, and while praised as an effective actress on stage, her chief fame is that gorgeous soprano voice of hers, generally reckoned the most beautiful soprano sound of her generation, sometimes named the most beautiful on record. She was also an impeccable bel canto singer: faultlessly articulated divisions, astonishingly full-bodied and precise trills, a breath line that seemed endless, full mastery of messa di voce across a huge range. Many seriously view her reading of this aria as the most vocally beautful of all:
Now we have another deeply expressive Norma, one of the finest actresses in opera ever, who, like Burzio, didn't necessarily mind all her bel canto "p"s and "q"s and is also caught at the end of her career, but offers a reading long on depth of feeling, though not as impeccably musical as her contemporary Ponselle: CLAUDIA MUZIO in 1935:
Just as great an actress and an even greater musician is MARIA CALLAS. Her greatest Norma, for many (and I would agree), is her Opening Night performance at La Scala, December 7, 1955. Clearly, this is an idiosyncratic sound, unlike the lovely Muzio, but I would agree with many that it has a startling humanity and virtually defines "vivid vocal face". Who can mistake the feelings depicted in Norma's prayer, as Callas delivers these long phrases in a virtual trance?
Finally, just as idiosyncratic a sound is heard in LEYLA GENCER in 1964. But in fact, I find her reading even greater than Callas's here, even more stirring, more troubled, and yet more beautiful too. Neither she nor Callas have that immaculate beauty of a Ponselle. But Gencer's type of beauty in particular has a distinctiveness that can grow on one appreciably through regular acquaintance. Her musical authority is also stunning; and one lives the character at every point through her singing: