Reassigning Voices In ‘Norma’ Delivers Glittering Rewards

For this Decca recording, it's mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli who takes on the title role of 'Norma.' (© Uli Weber)
For this Decca recording, it’s mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli who takes on the title role of ‘Norma.’ (© Uli Weber)
By John W. Lambert

Bellini: Norma — Cecilia Bartoli (Norma), Sumi Jo (Adalgisa), John Osborn (Pollione), Michele Pertusi (Oroveso), Liliana Nikiteanu (Clotilde), Reinaldo Macias (Flavio); International Chamber Vocalists; Orchestra La Scintilla; Giovanni Antonini, conductor. Decca. 

DIGITAL REVIEW — Say what you will about Decca’s new historically informed Norma – and since its May 2013 release, people have already said plenty, in print and in online discussions – the recording is essential listening for all music lovers who cherish what is arguably Vincenzo Bellini’s most popular and stage-worthy opera. This new venture commands attention on its own merits. But it will have particular appeal to long-time collectors who imprinted the sound of the first commercial recording (Gina Cigna, in a 1937 set issued on 36 78 rpm sides) and then “matured” with LP and CD editions by artists as vocally diverse as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

New musicological sleuthing is behind the lean, richly textured sound.
New musicological sleuthing is behind the lean, richly textured sound.

The reasons are many. For openers, the recording uses a new edition of the score that seems to harken back to Bellini’s time, or close to it. Credited with responsibility for the musicological sleuthing are Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi, although relatively little about their new edition has appeared online. The booklet that comes with the CDs – make that a book, for it is hard-bound and 200 pages in length – devotes only a few paragraphs to what is called “A Revolutionary Return to Norma‘s Roots,” addressing in turn “Bellini’s intended vocal colors,” “Bellini’s score,” “Bellini’s drama,” and “Bellini’s vision.” There’s a two-page overview of the editors’ challenges that sheds a bit more light, but we’ll have to wait for a scholarly analysis of the results when the revised score is published. A little over a page on performing bel canto opera on period instruments sheds surprisingly little light on what may be readily heard by listeners: crisp, incisive, and at times biting attacks in the strings; distinctive, tonally rich, and multi-hued colors from the winds and brass; and far-sharper-than-expected punctuation from the percussion section.

Orchestra La Scintilla records 'Norma' (Decca)
‘Norma’ was recorded in a Zürich-Oberstrass parish church. (Decca)

The band is the Orchestra La Scintilla (of the Zurich Opera). There is no list of orchestral personnel or the players’ instruments or the names and voice-types of the choristers – dubbed the International Chamber Vocalists (most likely Zurich-based but not specified). The chorus master is Jürg Hämmerli.

The results sound small-scale, lean, and richly textured, as we’ve come to expect from period-instrument bands, and the chorus sounds like a chamber choir, albeit one with highly polished blend and balance. It is the orchestral sound that may make the greatest initial impression, for it is sometimes brash and gutsy. Certain keen-eared listeners will be able to spend lots of time in meaningful comparisons with the recordings they remember most fondly and this new one. That’s long been one of the chief benefits of the whole performance-on-original-instruments movement, now definitely in its own maturity: Audience members often listen much more intently than they might otherwise, so they may hear the sometimes-subtle, sometimes-overt difference. We have come a long way since those initial rickety harpsichords, some built from kits, came on the scene, displacing in the process Wanda Landowska’s battleship of an instrument! (Note there are no harpsichords in Norma!)

Historically informed performance (HIP) is now well established in all the important musical capitals, so recordings like this new one, coming in the wake of, say, the Boston Early Music Festival, Juilliard’s burgeoning original instruments program, and Boston Baroque’s pioneering work here in America, stretching back 40 seasons, no longer break as much “new” ground as they once did.

Soprano Jo is Adalgisa, Bartoli is Norma for Decca's CD
Sumi Jo and Cecilia Bartoli, in session, defy role convention. (Decca)

It’s said that the further back you go in time, the lower the pitch. Juilliard’s primary ensemble tunes to 415 Hz. This Norma is set at 430 Hz, which some will argue is not all that far away from today’s 440+. Careful listening reveals it is enough of a drop to lower the tessituras, reducing the tension and making life a little easier for singers. This in turn probably enhances overall pitch stability, although it’s impossible to tell just how much of what is on display here results from the slightly relaxed tuning and how much stems from fixes in the studio. For sure, there are none of the jolts seasoned listeners will recall from the earliest days of the “movement”!

All that said, the chief interest in this new recording is likely to be the editors’ reassignment of the two leading roles and, perhaps secondarily, the ornamentation used by all the principals. In the aforementioned booklet, Cecilia Bartoli, who essays the title role, makes a strong case for, in effect, flipping the parts of Norma and Adalgisa from the conventional soprano and mezzo-soprano, respectively, and indeed the results are often striking, particularly when following the performance with a score (or libretto), so that you are constantly aware of who is singing what. (This is somewhat less striking when merely listening because the new edition seems completely natural in nearly every respect. Indeed, it sounds so natural that this would probably not be a good pick for a first Norma for a newcomer to the opera – lest the performances usually heard in opera houses around the world – or all other recordings – sound “incorrect.”)

There’s one other way to think about the ornamentation: Norma is almost twice as close to Handel as we 21st-century listeners are to Bellini’s time. If we can accept the lavish, sometimes outlandish ornamentation now routinely served up with Baroque opera, why not some of that from a work first given roughly a hundred years later? The ornamentation used in this recording will command attention, but it definitely grows on one with repeated hearings.

Bartoli is truly amazing in the role, as her legions of fans will doubtless expect. The special richness of her voice and her skill in deploying it make for some astonishing revelations as the drama unfolds. Sumi Jo, dazzling as Adalgisa, more than holds her own, vocally and dramatically. Tenor John Osborn has an appropriate timbre for the role of Pollione, and it is hard to imagine any of his distinguished recorded predecessors doing better in this particular historically informed context (although many older listeners will surely wonder what some of these earlier protagonists might have sounded like in this setting). The Oroveso is Michele Pertusi, rock-solid and consistently impressive in a role that is the least affected by the HIP upgrades (or, if you prefer, reversions). Rounding out the cast are mezzo-soprano Liliana Nikiteanu as Clotilde and tenor Reinaldo Macias as Flavio, both of whom are admirable here and hold considerable promise.

Bartoli took the role to stage last summer. (© Hans Jörg Michel)
Bartoli took the role to stage last summer. (© Hans Jörg Michel)

There’s little to quibble about in terms of the tempi and overall approach of conductor Giovanni Antonini. Nothing seems jarringly out of place. He is a singer’s conductor in terms of the care he gives to supporting his artists. For this first recording of this new HIP edition, that’s more than sufficient. Just suspend disbelief, and savor the vocal fireworks. (Norma was presented at the Salzburg Festival this past summer with pretty much the same cast; details are here.)

Chances are you’ll come to love this version — and then set aside all others in its favor. I’ve been listening to opera all my life, and I can tell you this: I haven’t heard anything this exciting since the English National Opera’s Julius Caesar. Yes, it’s that good – and a good deal more “authentic,” as we now know.

Recorded in Evangelisch-reformierte Kirchgemeinde, Zürich-Oberstrass, Switzerland, during April 2011, September 2011, and January 2013. Please note that each act is complete on one CD – the first running a remarkable 81:34 (which may be a stretch for older players) and the second, 61:37.

John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina and a long-time member of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.