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Salzburg Festival

In Review Sazlburg Norma hdl 915
Rebeca Olvera (Adalgisa) and Cecilia Bartoli (Norma) in Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Bellini's opera at the Salzburg Festival
© Hans Jörg Michel 2015
In Review Salzburg Norma lg 915
Michele Pertusi (Oroveso) and John Osborn (Pollione)
© Hans Jörg Michel 2015
In Review Salzburg Norma lg 2 915
Bartoli and Osborn
© Hans Jörg Michel 2015

The legendary soprano Lilli Lehmann, the first artist to sing the title role of Norma at the Met, once remarked that doing a single performance of Norma was harder work than singing all three Brünnhildes in a row. In terms of musical and expressive range, Bellini’s Druid priestess is virtually unmatched. The composer himself called the role “encyclopedic,” in reference to the slew of technical challenges it poses, from a virtuosic high range and soaring melodic lines to earthy notes for dramatically-charged arioso passages and a supple, translucent tone for the more devout passages. Hearing Cecilia Bartoli hit all these marks at this year’s Salzburg Festival was nothing short of sensational (seen Aug. 8). 

Working with much of the same team that collaborated on her 2013 Norma recordingfor Decca, Bartoli achieved far more satisfying effects in the Haus für Mozart — the smallest and most elegant of the festival’s three opera venues — than in the studio. The vocals on that CD suffered from close miking and a generally high-polish sound design. In Salzburg, it was possible to experience many of the same superlative artists in an atmosphere of raw intimacy. 

Chief among these was La Bartoli in a dramatic, mesmerizing, vocally astonishing performance that, unlike in her recording, never came across as mannered and erratic. Her interpretation was certainly idiosyncratic, but every note seemed calculated. The frequent shifts in mood and vocal technique were astonishing in their kaleidoscopic variety and Bartoli’s palpable assurance and control. Whenever she was on stage, she exuded a raw, fresh energy that made every phrase seem like a discovery. In this manner, her subtly vibrating “Casta diva” or her agitated “Dormono entrambi” seemed less like musical highlights than particularly rich moments in a muscular and flowing whole.               

While Bartoli was no doubt the star of the evening, there was no shortage of vocal finesse on offer. She anchored a white-hot performance that didn’t have a single weak component. At her side for much of the evening, Rebeca Olvera, a wondrously full-voiced Mexican soprano, harmonized beautifully with Bartoli as her unwitting rival Adalgisa. American tenor John Osborn was a gripping, heroically chesty Pollione with rousing high notes, although in the early part of the evening, he could have paid closer attention to what was going on in the pit. The masterful Italian bass Michele Pertusi, who recently thrilled Vienna audiences in the Staatsoper’s new Don Pasquale, was a well-rounded, booming Oroveso.

The cast was well-served by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s handsome and dramatically compelling production, first seen at Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival in 2013. The prolific directing duo moved the action from the first century B.C. to France under the Nazi occupation. A general lack of specificity in the production helped the concept work. Bellini’s oppressed Druids were members of the Résistance, but the occupying Roman forces could have easily been either French collaborators or the Gestapo. A brief, silent prologue made clear that the setting was a boarding school being inspected for harboring resistance fighters. Norma kept her children out of sight behind a wardrobe, a touch that made it impossible not to think of Jews in hiding. Visually, the production seemed full of borrowings from numerous war films, including Au Revoir, Les Enfants, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and even Inglourious Basterds. And in both the look and temperament of her Norma, Bartoli seemed indebted to Anna Magnani’s searing performance in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

The resplendent playing of Orchestra La Scintilla, a period instrument ensemble, under the direction of maestro Giovanni Antonini struck a balance between classical refinement and Romantic expressivity. The performance — like the earlier recording — used a new critical edition that restored several passages that were cut by the composer himself in addition to reconstructing the trio at the end of the first act (Adalgisa’s role is notably expanded), but which should mostly be familiar to opera lovers. Far more crucial to the performance’s success was Antonini’s judiciously measured tempi — which never lagged or wallowed in sentimentality — and sensitivity to evocative orchestral details like forte pizzicato to underpin the Druid’s martial ambitions even during their religious devotions or the small onstage banda that lyrically described the their retreat into the forest. 

Antonini clearly had very good chemistry with Bartoli (in fact, sometimes he even seemed to be following her) and he kept things in proportion without sacrificing emotional investment. His musicians played with elegance, grace and flair. Their period instruments lent an alluring sense of crispness to the proceedings, while the balanced forces of the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera filled things out with their resonant and coordinated work. They contributed beautifully to a performance that lavishly fulfilled Bellini’s dictum that “opera must make people weep, shudder and die through singing.” —A.J. Goldmann 

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