Each recording by Cecilia Bartoli not only reflects vocal and dramatic artistry but also musical scholarship. She has previously made albums of music by Steffani and Vivaldi and arias written for castrato tenors and legendary singer Maria Malibran (1808-1836).
Her latest release is a double-CD set of Bellini’s opera, “Norma.” On first blush, this would not seem especially novel since the work has long been recognized as a bel canto masterpiece and is frequently performed. However, the recording is based on a new critical edition of the score by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi and is played on period instruments. The Orchestra La Scintilla is conducted by Giovanni Antonini.
The title role has been portrayed by some of the leading sopranos of the last century, notably Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé. Bartoli, however, unlike these predecessors, is a mezzo-soprano. According to the essay she penned in the liner notes, the opera was initially written for what we now consider a mezzo, Giuditta Pasta (vocal categories were not as clearly defined at that time) and Malibran (also a mezzo) was a famous Norma, much admired by Bellini.
To briefly summarize the plot, the opera takes place in Gaul when it was occupied by Rome in 50 BC. Norma (the high priestess of the Druids) is in love with the Roman proconsul Pollione. He fathered her two children but, when the action begins, he has already shifted his attentions to Adalgisa, a younger priestess. Norma prays to the moon (“Casta diva”), but performs a military role in addition to her religious duties. She promises to lead a revolt against the Romans but is concerned about Pollione. Meanwhile, he begs Adalgisa to run off to Rome with him.
Adalgisa confides to Norma that she is considering breaking her vows for her lover. Norma is supportive until she discovers the man is Pollione, whereupon she flies into a rage. Adalgisa then refuses the proconsul’s entreaties because of loyalty to her friend.
In the second act, distraught Norma considers murdering her children but then asks Adalgisa to reconcile with Pollione and take Norma’s children to Rome. The novice refuses and the women swear solidarity with each other. Adalgisa says she will urge Pollione to go back to Norma. But when the high priestess hears that Pollione still rejects her, she foments an attack on the Romans. The proconsul is captured and Norma offers him freedom if he will reconcile with her but he refuses. Norma proclaims that a guilty priestess must be sacrificed and confesses that she is the one who must die. Pollione, for the first time, acts nobly and decides to join her in being burned alive. Norma asks her father, Oroveso (the high priest), to take care of her children.
What the opera lacks in logic, it makes up for with memorable music expressing a range of emotions. While the new recording may not outdo the drama of Callas’ versions or the pyrotechnics of Sutherland and Horne (as Norma and Adalgisa), the set has its own abundant merits. For one, the role of Adalgisa is not performed by a mezzo but by a soprano. This makes sense since she is the young novice and a lighter sound seems appropriate. In fact, the first Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, was a soprano. The role is played on the recording by Sumi Jo, who (like Bartoli) is superb. In another change from current practice (but also in line with the earliest performances of the opera), Pollione is portrayed by John Osborn, a lyric tenor. He sings with sensitivity and with a gleaming top register. While a heavier voice, such as Franco Corelli’s, might be more impressive in the fiery sections, Osborn makes a more vocally convincing seducer. Michele Pertusi is a commanding Oroveso. Another plus is the superb orchestra and many felicitous touches in the revised score, for example, the wooden transverse flute on “Casta Diva.”
The set is beautifully packaged, with essays and the complete libretto in four languages. There are photos of Bartoli, dressed in black, striking dramatic poses as well as smiling with her fellow recording artists. She is currently artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival where she has been performing “Norma” with the conductor, orchestra and soloists from the recording, except for Sumi Jo. Interestingly, the time of the action has been moved from ancient Gaul to World War II, with the occupiers Nazis rather than Romans. While there has been a drive to reproduce the sound world of the composers, opera houses seem to have no interest in recreating what the original audiences saw on the stage.
Das Alte Werke has just re-released an earlier classic recording of Bartoli’s, Haydn’s “Armida,” with Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the original instruments ensemble, Concentus Musicus. The opera was recorded in a concert in 2000, with a fine cast that included Christoph Prégardien, Patricia Petibon, and Oliver Widmer. Haydn’s 1784 opera is based on the same source, Tasso’s “Jerusalem Liberated,” that inspired Lully, Handel, and Gluck. This time, Bartoli is the seducer, the enchantress Armida, who sets her sights on Rinaldo (the Christian Crusader). Again, she alternately flirts and rages with extraordinary musicianship.