Opera Scotland

Norma

Music
Vincenzo Bellini (born Catania, 3 November 1801; died Puteaux, nr Paris, 23 September 1835)

Text
Felice Romani.

Source
French tragedy Norma, ou l'Infanticide (1831) by Alexandre Soumet (1788-1845).

Premieres
First performance: Milan (La Scala), 26 December 1831.
First UK performance: London (King’s Theatre, Haymarket), 20 June 1833.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 4 September 1849.
Scottish Opera premiere: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 21 April 1993.

Background
Bellini came from a musical family in Sicily, but when his exceptional talent was recognised he was sent to study for several years in Naples. He showed a particular talent for long, flowing melodic lines. His first opera was composed for performance at the Naples Conservatory, and a commission immediately followed this from the main Naples opera house. He was immediately judged to be a composer of national importance, and his next two operas were premiered at La Scala Milan. Norma is generally reckoned to be his masterpiece. This is despite the fact that the situation established at curtain-rise must be one of the most ridiculously unlikely of any serious opera. However, the title role is inordinately demanding, musically and dramatically, and the skill with which Bellini structures the piece and builds tension is notable.

Characters
Oroveso, the Archdruid (bass)
Pollione, Roman Proconsul in Gaul (tenor)
Flavio, a centurion (tenor)
Norma, a Druid priestess, daughter of Oroveso (soprano)
Adalgisa, a novice priestess (soprano)
Clotilde, Norma’s companion (mezzo-soprano)

Plot Summary
The setting is Gaul (modern France) during the period of the Roman occupation. The Roman Proconsul, Pollione, has for many years carried on an illicit affair with Norma, a Druid priestess, and they have two children, raised in secret. He has now transferred his affection to a younger priestess, Adalgisa. This triangle is played out to the background of the Gauls preparing for a revolt against Roman rule. Norma recognises that Pollione no longer loves her. She contemplates the murder of her children. When she discovers that Adalgisa is her rival, Norma resolves to denounce the younger woman to her fellow Gauls. The penalty would inevitably be death. Pollione has been captured and is also scheduled for execution. However at last Norma announces that she is herself the priestess who has betrayed her vow of chastity. She asks her father to look after her children, and goes to the stake, joined in death by a contrite Pollione.

RECORDINGS

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 2011.

Conductor Giovanni Antonini

Orchestra La Scintilla

Cecilia Bartoli (Norma), Sumi Jo (Adalgisa), John Osborn (Pollione).

This is a fascinating document, not just of interest to anyone lucky enough to see the performances at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival with Bartoli and Osborn. There are several differences of style between this and the older recordings. Not only is Adalgisa, the younger priestess, sung by a light soprano, but Norma herself is performed in the far darker tones of a mezzo, in a serious attempt to return to the soundworld of Bellini's time. While much of the playing is fast and dramatic, there is actually a novel delicacy of approach in most of the music. Bartoli is thoroughly convincing in the enormous difficulties of the title role and sounds completely dfferent from previous versions. John Osborn is a lyrical and youthful sounding Pollione, while the experienced Sumi Jo has just the right gleaming vocal quality for the near juvenile character. The small orchestra is in lithe and dramatic form - the overture gets it off to a fizzing start.

 

NIGHTINGALE (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 2004

Conductor: Friedrich Haider
Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic Orchestra
Edita Gruberová (Norma), Elina Garança (Adalgisa), Aquiles Machado (Pollione).

The Slovak soprano Edita Gruberová has sung little in the UK since the early years of her career, when she specialised in singing Zerbinetta and Queen of the Night, but on the continent she is recognised as an expert and experienced exponent of many of the major bel canto roles. This concert performance is well recorded and shows her in majestic form, beautifully matched with the suitably youthful sounding light mezzo of the then little-known Elina Garança as Adalgisa. Machado combines a lyrical sound with an appropriately heroic tone when required, and the important subsidiary role of Oroveso is very well done by Alastair Miles. In all this gives a very good indication of just why Norma is a masterpiece.

WARNER/EMI (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1960

Conductor: Tullio Serafin
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Maria Callas (Norma), Christa Ludwig (Adalgisa), Franco Corelli (Pollione).

Since the war, it has been impossible to discuss the role of Norma without considering Callas. Her recordings are to some degree indispensable, but none of them is ideal. Her first studio recording from La Scala, recorded in 1954, shows her in glorious voice, but the supporting cast is a mixed blessing. The veteran Ebe Stignani sings beautifully as Adalgisa, but the sound is not that of a young woman – more like Norma’s granny. The tenor, Mario Filippeschi, sounds unattractive, and Oroveso and the chorus both sound very woolly. By contrast, in 1960, Callas sings less beautifully, but her understanding of the role has deepened. Ludwig and Corelli both sound excellent, and Serafin still conducts with authority. There is also an interesting recording made live at Covent Garden in 1952. The wonderful conductor is Vittorio Gui, Callas is superb, Stignani sounds younger, and the tenor, Mirto Picchi, is fine. An added curiosity is to hear the small role of Clotilde sung by a young Joan Sutherland.

 

MYTO (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1969

Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Orchestra of Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
Joan Sutherland (Norma), Fiorenza Cossotto (Adalgisa), Charles Craig (Pollione).

Norma is a role which had an important place in Sutherland’s stage career, with more than 100 performances around the world. She sings the demanding music with staggering ease and virtuosity. She recorded it twice for Decca in the studio, both times with excellent support. In 1964 she had only just started singing the role and the characterisation is still fairly simple. Marilyn Horne and John Alexander give great support. Twenty years later she recorded it again, this time with Caballé and Pavarotti giving sterling support in roles they did not usually sing. By this time, though Sutherland’s interpretation has deepened, the voice no longer sounds young. Several live recordings have been made available from different sources, and this one from Argentina shows her on wonderful form, with superb support from Cossotto and Craig. Strangely, though the audience reaction is almost hysterical, it doesn’t seem in any way intrusive. The idiocies of the plot become immaterial when the atmosphere of a live performance takes over.

 

DG Sung in Italian (2 CDs). Recorded 1973.

Conductor: James Levine.

New Philharmonia Orchestra.

Beverly Sills (Norma), Shirley Verrett (Adalgisa), Enrico di Giuseppe (Pollione).

This recording led by the young James Levine in fine dramatic style features important American singers in the four leading roles (including Paul Plishka as Oroveso). It was controversial at the time, because as with most of her recordings of the bel canto repertoire, there was a widespread view that Beverly Sills did not have the necessary vocal equipment for this big dramatic role. By comparison with Callas, Gencer, Sutherland and Caballé, who were perhaps the benchmarks at the time, with even longer memories going back to Rosa Ponselle and Gina Cigna, this may well be true. With hindsight her interpretation can be taken on its own terms, and contains much to enjoy, with a lighter, more highly decorated touch - perhaps this is how Jenny Lind approached the part. The same may be said of the young tenor Enrico di Giuseppe. He had a brief career in leading roles at New York City Opera, and here displays an excellent style, but very different from the heroic sound usually heard in the role previously. Of the wonderful Shirley Verrett little needs to be said, except that she sounds surprisingly youthful in the still expected mezzo version of the role. It may be remembered that a few years later she sang the title role at both the Met and Covent Garden.

 

SONY Sung in Italian (2 CDs). Recorded 1979.

Conductor: James Levine.

National Philharmonic Orchestra

Renata Scotto (Norma), Tatiana Troyanos (Adalgisa), Giuseppe Giacomini (Pollione).

The second recording of Norma conducted by James Levine dates from his early years in charge at the Met, still before the recording companies moved back in after a long absence. As before, it was recorded with a London orchestra during summer sessions between seasons. Oroveso is again well sung by Paul Plishka, with the short roles filled by London based singers in Ann Murray and Paul Crook. Renata Scotto had sung the more lyrical roles in Bellini operas throughout her career, giving two of them, Sonnambula and Straniera, in Edinburgh, and Sonnambula also at Covent Garden. She had put off Norma until later, when the voice took on its later dramatic tones, and first sang it under Muti at Florence. She then gave many performances at the Met with these principals. The New York mezzo Tatiana Troyanos spent many years working in Germany (coming to Edinburgh in 1968) and had been an excellent Carmen at Covent Garden. She was also an excellent bel canto stylist. Giacomini was perhaps overshadowed by the famous three tenore, but produced more heroic tones than then in this excellent traditional reading of the part.

The Cast

Adalgisa
 a virgin of the temple
Clotilde
 Norma's confidante
Flavio
 a centurion
Norma
 High Priestess of the druid temple
Norma's child 1
 
Norma's child 2
 
Oroveso
 Archdruid, father of Norma
Pollione
 Roman Pro-consul in Gaul

© Copyright Opera Scotland 2017

Site by SiteBuddha