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Posts Tagged ‘Bellini’s Norma’

If Edita Gruberová were Japanese, she would be a Living National Treasure – she is 65 and sings one of the most difficult roles in the repertoire, Bellini’s Norma, quite often. She is a singer of legendary technique, musicianship, expressiveness and dramatic commitment – but, even if her tonal quality is extremely youthful, she is no longer in her prime. That does not mean that she should retire – God forbids! – but I wonder why a singer used to immaculateness could content herself with being indulged. Is it because her artistic generosity is such that she feels that she should give her all even risking her reputation? I tend to believe that: “generosity” was precisely the word on my mind during this evening’s performance, which required from her an immense effort in adaptation to overcome many glitches. A poorly tuned Casta diva followed by a Bello, a me ritorna a bit all over the place did not promise a gratifying experience, but then Ah, rimembranza had many breathtaking examples of lovely high mezza voce and the end of act I developed into something truly exciting (with some interesting interpretative touches, quite different from what she has done both in her video and audio recordings). In act II, her problems with the lower end of the tessitura brought about unconvincing examples of “acting with the voice” (especially in In mia man, when things got a bit out of control), but she more than compensated in a truly heartbreaking plea for her children in the closing scene. While I still believe it was a rewarding experience, I would have truly preferred to see an artist of Gruberová’s level in a repertoire when one doesn’t need to forgive her anything but rather appreciate her immense talents under the proper light.

Sonia Ganassi does not need to fear comparison in what regards artistic generosity – her Adalgisa is exquisitely conceived, the text is expressively and intelligently used, she masters the difficulties of that role and has an engaging personality. And she was in very good voice, better than last time I saw her in this opera.  As his Norma, Johan Botha found problems in his opening aria – the high notes were tense and edgy. That did not prevent him from trying high options in the cabaletta, but the problem persisted. That said, he sang with such elegance, nuance and imagination as I haven’t heard before in this role. Alexander Vingradov’s full-toned and finely focused bass worked beautifully in the role of Oroveso. This is a singer I would like to hear again. Kyungho Kim too deserves mention for his Flavio – far more positive and pleasant-toned than we are used to hear in this role.

Although Andriy Yurkevich has his kapellmeisterlich moments, he has a good grasp of bel canto style and some surprises in reserve, especially a good sense of balancing, of bringing endearing instrumental details to the fore without interrupting the rhythmic flow – even when giving his singers some freedom to phrase. The Staatskapelle Berlin was in excellent shape – the string section adopted a bright, Italianate sound and tackled passagework  with virtuoso quality. If it were not for the Schiller Theater dry acoustics (that robbed brass and drums roundness of tone), this would have been ideal.

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Bellini’s Norma has a singular mystique among opera-goers. Although fans of German repertoire dismiss it as insubstantial, Richard Wagner himself was an admirer of the work and acknowledged that a great deal of its power relies in its unhindered melodic flow that translate sentiments with unusual nobility. The fact that this simplicity that eludes explanation is capable of such expressive power is probably Norma’s mystery – and also its main difficulty for performers. A single mistake is enough to ruin a sublime moment – and it is not really difficult for a singer to make a mistake in a work that demands so much from its soloists. Nevertheless, even if it is true that this is not a challenging orchestral score, it is one entirely consistent of effects: if those arpeggi for strings do not display crystal-clear sound and intonation, if those sostenuto notes in the French horns do not appear unforced and blend with the framework of strings, if the plangent cello solos do not sound almost unbearably expressive, then one may have a good cast, but not a good Norma.

This evening, I came to the theatre with the expectation of a musically scrumptious performance. This is an orchestra used to Wagner and R. Strauss and, as much as some performances bel canto operas from the Bavarian State Opera, I hoped to find the ultimate level of refinement and polish. However, conductor Paolo Carignani and his musicians did not quite offer that. Maybe because of light-voiced singers, the maestro seemed to focus on the score’s, to use Felice Romani’s own words, molli affetti. In those moments, his good ear for balance and his attention to his singers’ needs payed off touchingly. In the remaining moments,  the orchestra basically lacked punch: accents were rather saggy, tempi somehow dragged, intense moments often sounded ultimately noisy. To make things worse, the chorus sang with surprising sluggishness. If the Gaul battle cry was supposed to be so languid, the only reason why Pollione’s army did not wipe them off the surface of the Earth in a couple of hours is because he was too busy fooling around with the local beauties.

However, if someone is to blame for the lack of backbone this evening, this should be Bob Wilson. You don’t really need to read anything I write here to know how it was – it was basically what he does everywhere in whatever he does. He says naturalistic theatre is a fraud, but I guess I would rather be defrauded than bored to death. I still have to be enlightened about how the attempt to recreate human feelings on stage should be less desirable than walking-like-an-Egyptian. All right, some images are beautiful, but some are kitsch too – like having pieces of Norma’s glittery pyramidal “temple” dancing around static actors in the first act’s finale. If there is something to be redeemed in this staging, this would be this evening’s soprano impressive embodiment of this anti-naturalistic approach as a means to increase (and not decrease, as in everything else) drama. Her face had the tragic quality of a mask, her figure the grandeur of a statue and even the slightest movement was filled with the emotional charge that gives sense to everything.

If you are not a soprano drammatico d’agilità, Norma will probably an ungrateful job. It is doubly sad then that practically nobody can claim herself this Fach. Certainly not Elena Mosuc, who would rather be classified as lyric coloratura soprano. Although she has a solid low register, she is no Norma by nature and I suspect we won’t hear her in that role other than in the Opernhaus Zürich. Her voice is extremely appealing in its creaminess and floated pianissimi, but it does resent the slightest attempt of producing a dramatic note. She treated carefully but stylishly through Casta Diva, was not really at ease with Bello, a me ritorna and only survived the second act because she rather adapted the role’s demand to her own means. This made her Norma unusually passive and vulnerable, but if this approach should constitute a valid view of this multifaceted role, she would first need to master the art of blending words and sounds in one single, inseparable unity in the way Giuditta Pasta probably did or a Callas or a Scotto used to do. The Rumanian soprano has clear diction and phrases with elegance, but in the end the results are excessively understated to be called anything else but a laudable attempt.

I have to confess I never expected to find a mezzo soprano like Michelle Breedt in the role of Adalgisa and yet she proved to be adept in the art of messa di voce and to have reasonable coloratura. Hers is still an unitalianate voice, its smoky, a tiny little bit thick sound does not convey any sense of youth and innocence, but this was really an intelligent and capable rendition of a difficult role – and it does not hurt that her top notes are so full and free.

Roberto Aronica is easily the larger voice in the case and probably the only name you would find in a cast list of this opera in normal circumstances. His extreme top notes are not really easy and he sings a bit stodgily, but the sound is always firm, full and echt. Although Giorgio Giuseppini did not seem to be in very good voice (the higher end of his range sounded unfocused), he offered a decent if not quite noble Oroveso with some spacious low notes.

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In view of Violeta Urmana’s debatable success in Verdi, one would tend to dismiss her incursion in bel canto without even hearing a note of it. Nevertheless, her Adalgisa to Nelly Miricioiu’s Norma in Amsterdam back in 1999 was a most satisfying performance. Of course, the title role in the opera is a far more fearsome enterprise.

Before I miss the attention of nay-sayers, I will go to the heart of the matter: Norma is not a role that naturally suits Violeta Urmana’s voice. I am not even entirely convinced that it suits her temper either, but – and this is an important “but” – her stab at it deserves praise nonetheless and speaks favorably to her status as a leading singer in her generation. This is not a performance that will make into history in any sense and must be seen as an example of this singer’s solid technique, good taste, musicianship and endeavor. In any case, the final results are far more consistent than one has recently heard from singers like Maria Guleghina, Hasmik Papian or Fiorenza Cedolins (to name a few recent broadcasts).

It might sound surprisising that the high tessitura proved to be less challenging to Urmana than what I had imagined. It is true that a couple of exposed acuti sounded either edgy or hard pressed, but one did not have the impression that she would not make it or that she was even getting tired out of the effort of requiring so much so often from her high register. If we keep in mind that her repertoire is that of a dramatic soprano, her fioriture are quite decent. She strays from pitch in the middle of a run now and then, but she was consistently true to tempo – and the conductor never slowed the pace to make things easy for her. When a lighter touch was required, she had her ungainly moments, but mezza voce, even in high notes, posed her no difficulties. As expected the edition  had all the adaptations adopted when a singer like this is cast in the main role, including no repeat for Bello, a me ritorna.

In the context of a concert performance, singers tend to concentrate on the vocal aspects, but Urmana could find the necessary theatricality for key moments, although grandeur remained the keynote here. In fact, if I had to single out one quality in her performance, this would be the elegance of her phrasing that brought about a sense of classical poise that fits this repertoire. However, the hallmark aspect of bel canto, the ability to produce the perfect blend of tonal colouring and declamation, eluded her unfortunatey. In this sense, the casting of Sonia Ganassi as Adalgisa was especially telling. Even if her voice has seen more flexible and focused days, her skill in giving life to the text through phrasing was quite admirable, especially in what regards dynamics, inflection and tonal variety.

Korean tenor Francesco Hong’s gave me the impression of trying to be more Italian than Italians themselves. His whole attitude evokes the days of Corelli, del Monaco et al. Fortunately for him, his voice is indeed really Italianate and his Italian is idiomatic. A most pleasant tonal quality, a strong, spontaneous middle register and the potential for some exciting top notes should secure him a sucessful career (in spite of a disadvantageous physique), but his technique is rather irregular and impressive moments (he proved to be dramatically engaged and sometimes even nuanced) are often followed by clumsy ones, not to mention that outdated mannerisms appear now and then. Finally, Carlo Colombara’s bass is authoritative and firm-toned, but his legato leaves a lot to be desired.

The Teatro Real’s chorus offered a very good performance, but Massimo Zanetti is probably the wrong man to conduct the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, whose strings lack tonal richness to start with. As the maestro insisted on fast , percussive sounds, the aural picture seemed brassy and abrupt, missing the necessary warmth, especially in elegiac passages. Although the conductor was keen on precision and faithfulness to dynamic markings, the effect was too short in smoothness and expressive power, suggesting rather a work by Rossini than by Bellini sometimes.

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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).

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The Norma debacle at the Metropolitan Opera House has ignited debated whether opera houses should stage such work without a prima donna up to the almost impossible demands made by the title role. This takes us to the question – how often does a theatre has an amazing Norma at its disposal? Many singers have experimented with the role – sometimes to great effect – but left it before it started to take its toil, others have overstayed to their own regret. In any case, considering the interpretative and technical difficulties involved, every good Norma should make into the gramophone. Margaret Price, for example, wasn’t lucky enough to get a decent broadcast and we should thank those half-industrious, half-crazy people who carry a clandestine tape-recorder to the theatre for the memento of her beautiful account of the role.

Fortunately, Nelly Miriciou had a different fate, for a 1999 broadcast of her Norma from Amsterdam is a valuable document of a truly great performance. Although the role is a bit high for her, she is the kind of singer who turns every disadvantage into advantage and creates a three-dimensional role by virtue of technical skill, natural feeling for the words allied to crystalline diction and a really fiery temper. When Adalgisa asks her to depose the celestial authority that surrounds her, for once the listener understands that request, for Miricioiu displays amazing command in public scenes but is also capable of touching tenderness. The long duet with Adalgisa is a perfect exemple. As required, she mellows into intimate melancholy while listening to the young woman’s story, but as soon as she starts to suspect that they are speaking of Pollione, her voice shifts immediately back to her formidable self through tone colouring alone. The closing scene is also original and effective, the keynote being rather worldweariness than regret. Her pleas to her father in favour of her sons show rather spiritual exhaustion than despair.

Miricioiu is brilliantly partnered by Violeta Urmana, a superlative Adalgisa. Her warm sensuous voice was in mint condition and she tackles her division with ease and graciousness and successfully portrays her character’s youth and naiveté. It is a pity that the only remaining great singer in this recording is Wilke Te Broemmelstroete, a particularly noticeable Clotilde. Both Carlo Ventre’s Pollione and Dmitri Kavrakos’s Oroveso are lackadaisical if unobtrosive. Maurizio Barbacini conducts an intense and forward-moving performance and the Dutch orchestra is up to the task.

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I owe my love to vocal music to one singer – Margaret Price. And my gratitude for her is neverending. It is very difficult for me not to buy a disc where she is featured, even in a minor part. She is the kind of singer who treats every note as if the whole score depended on it, and that is why no opportunity to listen to her singing is a waste of time: there is always riches of musical and poetic insight in reserve. That is why reading an interview of hers in which she stated that Norma was the role in which she was less satisfied with her results made me curious for life. This curiosity has been satisfied with an in-house recording from the Opernhaus Zürich in 1979.

Bellini’s Norma is of course a fearsome role and it is wiser to be careful than overconfident. In 1979, Price was in her best shape and even if – predictably - Bello a me ritorna and In mia man take her to her limits, her singing is always confident, expressive and beautiful. I don’t think it is exaggerated to say that her creamy soprano is the most beautiful I have ever heard in this part. Although she more than copes with the florid writing and long tessitura, her main virtue her classical approach to the role. I am trying to avoid the word “Mozartian”, because many will take this in the wrong way. If you persist in the mistaken of considering Mozartian singing something small-scaled, dispeptic and sanitized, then forget I wrote that. What I mean is the instrumentally sculpted phrasing, the precise combination of dramatic intention and musical expression, the nobility of tone – in this sense Margaret Price’s Norma is unique and she should be proud of it. This is not a verbally specific and grand-scale performance such as Callas’s or Scotto’s, but if you are curious to sample a Grisi-bound perspective to the title role, you should give it a chance.

In this performance, Price is ideally partnered by Agnes Baltsa’s Adalgisa. Her quasi-soprano mezzo was then taylor-made for this role. She is comfortable with the coloratura and her voice blends beautifully with her Norma’s. Bruno Prevedì is a solid Pollione, if not particularly imaginative and Matti Salminen’s Wagnerian bass makes Oroveso sound particularly “barbarian”. In any case, he was in very good voice. Nello Santi is less bureaucratic than expected and shows some interesting ideas that never put his cast in difficult situations. I found the accelerando finale ultimo particularly effective. It is a pity that the recorded sound is atrocious. The tape-recorded was obviously on the lap of someone in the audience, but the real bad news is that the microphone cannot resist loud dynamics involving more than one singer and the orchestra.

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