If it were possible to put Maria Guleghina and Hasmik Papian in a blender, maybe the Metropolitan Opera House would have found an ideal singer for the fearsome role of Norma in Bellini’s opera. But, alas!, life is never that simple. In any case, maybe because I had previously read all the trashing both singers have been receiving on-line, I have probably set my mind to find a positive note on their performances. And so I have. In their present shape, neither Guleghina nor Paspian could boast to be an exemplary Norma and they are even below the “but since Callas…”-excuse. That said, judging from the broadcasts of November 12th (Papian) and November 26th (Guleghina), I can honestly say that neither of them has covered themselves with shame.
It is difficult to tell which is Papian’s original Fach after all sorts of manipulation she has employed to sing roles such as Norma or Aida (incidentally, the only role in which I saw her live), but I would bet she is a lyric soprano whose former fresh-voiced self should have gone into the Desdemona-Amelia-Elisabetta slot. Her basic tone is still her main asset – hers is a pleasant velvety voice, reasonably flexible (although her coloratura is in the almost-off-track style), but whenever the line is too low, too high, too fast or requires the minimal cutting edge, the sound becomes helplessly bleached out. I cannot tell if she has little imagination or if overpartedness prevents her to employ whatever imagination she has. What is beyond doubt is that her results are decidedly bland. I disagree, however, with those who say it is better not to stage Norma with such a singer. Although she does not inhabit vocally or dramatically her Norma, she does give an idea of what the role more or less should be. Her performance is the type available in South American opera houses or German provincial theatres – it is certainly a decent if lackadaisical piece of singing.
Guleghina is a totally different case. In her performance, the spirit is all there – she evidently has a whole set of ideas of who her character is and employs all her weapons to share them with the audience. I would add she even has all the necessary weapons to accomplish her task – the problem is that either they are bit rusty or she herself should have warmed up before brandishing them after a long period of rest. What I mean is that nature is not to blame: she was born with the potential to be a perfect Norma. Her soprano has the size, the power, the range, the flexibility and the right colour for this role, but she has developed a plethora of bad habits that make it impossible for her to display any of these qualities on a consistent basis. During her performance, there is always this moments when things miraculously work – this low note is perfectly focused, that pianissimo floats, these melisme are perfectly articulated – and, when that happens, she more than delivers the goods. However, the next moment shows blurred coloratura, instable mezza voce, inaudible low register and erratic pitch.
Even if I run the risk of being thrown tomatos, I have to say that, although I find her infuriatingly imperfect, I like Guleghina. She has the generosity which is the hallmark of every great artist. The problem is that she does not seem to consider discipline part of what a devoted artist should have. In this performance, even when everything is going woefully wrong, she never spares herself – she always goes for the effect expected from her – she tries every pianissimo, she decorates her repeats, she even ventures in one or two high options. What I mean – although I prefer perfection, I can’t help being touched by sheer engagement. It is true I haven’t seen her Norma live – but I remember feeling that way when I saw her Aida and Tosca. Her enthusiasm made me fill in the blanks left by inappropriate technique.
I don’t think artists should read reviews – those are the communications between critics and the audience – but if I could presume to say anything she could read, I would tell her Mirella Freni’s wise advice: “I have always had a naturally placed voice. This is an advantage, but also a danger. When we begin, the voice is always there – or almost always. It is only later that we realise that the days when we are in olympic shape are quite rare and that technique is essential. I have the luck to love the physical aspect of singing, to have the talent to do what I call ‘engine check-up’. As soon as I feel the least tension, the least abuse of my vocal instrument, I painstakingly investigate the cause of the possible break-down and fix it”.
Last but not least, I was positively surprised by Dolora Zajick’s Adalgisa. Although she does not suggest a young innocent woman, she avoids coming up too strongly as when she sings, for instance, Azucena. Her voice is still quite flexible and her high notes are generally comfortable. Maybe she was just in better voice later in November, but I have the impression the interaction with Guleghina had a positive effect on her (also on the tenor, I would say).