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spacer Bartoli, Jo; Osborn, Pertusi; La Scintilla, Antonini. Text and translation. Decca 478 3517 (2)

Not Your Mother's Norma

Cecilia Bartoli overhauls Bellini's iconic 1831 opera as a bel canto period piece.


People will dislike Decca's period-instrument Norma for different reasons. Some (like those who found the colors of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling too garish after restoration in 1990) don't want to experience beloved artworks in a new light, while others will object to casting, tempos, vocal technique and interpretation. Some may just be tired of the record company's treasure-hunt puzzles and iPad mystery-game tie-ins.

Once the smugness of period authenticity wears off (remember the first Messiah and Beethoven Ninth on early instruments?), we return to judging performances with attention to artistry, virtuosity and conviction. In time, we'll do the same with Norma, but for now let's thank Cecilia Bartoli, who, if not the ideal singer for the title role, is the only person with enough clout to overhaul Bellini's iconic 1831 opera as a bel canto period-piece.

For this recording, a new critical edition of the work is used, familiar cuts from the 1950s are opened, music found in additional source material has been introduced, tempos and dynamics have been meticulously rethought, and casting a soprano Adalgisa, according to Bellini's intentions, restores original keys. None of this is radical or startling, and it's unclear why the program essays don't credit the earlier work of Philip Gossett and Will Crutchfield, or Fabio Biondi's original-instrument Norma of 2001, with June Anderson. Even a soprano Adalgisa is not new on disc: Caballé partnered Sutherland in the 1980s.

Lighter voices, all employing stylish embellishments and messe di voce while singing high notes on actual text rather than emergency "ah"s, also bring a welcome naturalness and flexibility. Nevertheless, it's the orchestral colors  — revelatory in their warmth and spice — that really distinguish this recording. The gut strings, wooden flutes and natural horns of La Scintilla, the stylish period-instrument ensemble drawn from the Zurich Opera Orchestra, offer clarity of texture and better balance. The mellowness of a slightly lower pitch standard and the absence of metallic string-dominated orchestral sound allow the singers more suppleness, subtlety and expressive possibilities, and conductor Giovanni Antonini elicits kaleidoscopic instrumental colors with crisp rhythmic impulse.

Michele Pertusi brings handsome, noble tone to the role of Oroveso , and he lends good rhythmic force to "Ah! del Tebro." John Osborn approaches the role of Pollione from the bel canto tradition, with flexibility and sensitivity guiding his dark-timbred tenor; his impressive pianissimos and limpid phrasing in the final duet fuel a welcome three-dimensional characterization. Although his Italian retains an Anglo trace, Osborn brings urgent delivery and robust top notes to "Meco all'altar di Venere"  and its appropriately ornamented cabaletta, "Me protegge, me difende" with easy extra high Cs, all propelled vigorously by the cellos and basses. 

Impeccable bel canto credits, along with vocal freshness and innocence, lend Sumi Jo's Adalgisa the requisite vulnerability and youthfulness, and her opening scene, with its prayerful "Deh! proteggimi O dio" , is gorgeously sung, heartfelt and expressive with the same delicacy Jo brings to every note here. It's a pleasure to hear tenderness and intimacy, rather than shouting, between the Roman officer and the young Druid priestess in their dangerous secret meeting, and when Adalgisa seeks the counsel of the high priestess Norma, the women's similar stories of seduction and broken vows intertwine in a swiftly-paced, hushed "Oh! rimembranza" (marked andante agitato in the autograph), with Jo's delicate sound contrasting with Bartoli's mature, darker color.

Bartoli has no problem with the tessitura of the title role and sings above Jo artfully in their duets; in fact, Bartoli's high notes, generally taken pianissimo, spin beautifully . It's her crazed characterization and failure to show Norma's authority that pose problems. Although internalized lyrical moments are deftly handled ("Casta diva" and "Deh! non volerli vittime"  especially), Bartoli falls into the very trap she claims to be avoiding in her well-argued program essay, with a hyper-realistic acting style that is pure verismo. Exaggerated sibilants, heightened by ultra-close miking, turn recitatives  into hissing caricatures, while moments demanding real vocal command, especially the ruthless "Oh non tremare, o perfido" and the threatening "In mia man alfin tu sei," fall short.

Extra music provides an extended major-key coda to the bloodthirsty chorus "Guerra, guerra" , mirroring the serene, Gluckian trills of the overture's glorious harmonic shift from minor to major. Although the great trio "Oh! di qual sei tu vittima" starts too lighthearted and dancelike, additional solo verses here and in "Te sull'onde" bring more individual focus to each character in this superb confrontation scene, and Antonini propels the orchestra and singers (without chorus in this authoritative version) to a brilliant Act I conclusion. spacer 


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