Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, September 18, 2017

Norma, 1: Setting the Bar

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The 2017-2018 Metropolitan Opera season opens on September 25 with Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831), in a new production directed by Sir David McVicar and designed by Robert Jones. Awaited with high anticipation is the return to the title role at the Met of Sondra Radvanovsky whose 2013 performances were justly cheered. And this time, she will be joined by Joyce DiDonato, another superb belcantista, in the part of Adalgisa. The opera will be telecast Live in HD on October 7.

Set in ancient Gaul, Bellini’s opera tells of the sacrilegious liaison between Norma, a Druid priestess, and the enemy proconsul, Pollione. The Roman, tired of Norma, the mother of his two children, has become infatuated with a younger priestess, Adalgisa. Infuriated at his betrayal, Norma comes to forgive her repentant lover, and the two accept death in a sacrificial fire. 

Bellini’s opera was first performed at the Met in German in 1890 and then in the original Italian beginning in 1891. It was revived after three decades, in 1927, for Rosa Ponselle. The principal role calls for creamy legato, emphatic recitative, and lyric and dramatic coloratura, all executed within the refined parameters of bel canto. Ponselle’s rendition of the score’s most famous aria, “Casta diva (Chaste goddess),” a prayer to the moon, was recorded the following year in the studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company. The forceful resolve of the recitative, the rapture of the prayer, and the agitation of the cabaletta are plied by the American soprano without apparent effort. Through a broad dynamic range, the characteristically dark Ponselle voice remains ideally equalized. Setting the bar for all future Normas, Ponselle brought a work of bel canto genius into the Met repertoire at last and for good.


Not surprisingly, Ponselle’s bar has often eluded the reach of her successors. One episode drawn from the history of the Met features the great Kirsten Flagstad. The Wagnerian soprano had heard Ponselle in act 3 of Norma during a 1935 gala. In fact, much of act 3—the legato of the recitative “Teneri figli (Dearest children),” the andante section of the duet “Mira, O Norma (Behold, O Norma)”—was well suited to Flagstad. But there was reason for caution: she had never undertaken a bel canto role or a role that demanded dramatic coloratura. Nonetheless, Flagstad was game to give it a try. In fall 1935, after an encouraging run-through, a coach was enlisted to infuse her delivery with the apposite style. But Flagstad soon determined that Norma was not for her and asked to be released from her commitment, saving herself and her fans from what she feared would be a disappointment.

It was the Franco-Italian dramatic soprano, Gina Cigna, one of the reigning queens of La Scala in the 1930s, who took on the next Met Norma in her debut season, 1936-1937. She was embraced by public and critics for her ample, sensuous voice, her acting, and her dignified presence. As you will hear in this excerpt from a complete recording of the opera made in Italy in 1937, Cigna’s dark timbre is similar to Ponselle’s. The selection is from the first of the two sublime duets sung by Norma and Adalgisa, here the opulent Ebe Stignani, “Ah, rimembranza (Oh, what memories).” As the tormented Adalgisa, vowed to chastity, confesses her transgressive desire, Norma recalls her own rapturous awakening to love.



At the very end of the duet, Norma realizes that Adalagisa’s beloved is none other than Pollione. The faithless seducer interrupts their colloquy. There ensues a trio that concludes the act, among the most riveting pages in music drama. Norma vents her wrath, Adalgisa, expresses her horror at the perfidy of her would-be suitor, and in his defense, Pollione invokes the irresistible power of love. The excerpt from this live recording of the opening of the 1955 La Scala season begins with the thunderous applause that followed the “Ah, rimembranza” of Maria Callas and Giulietta Simionato. We first hear the electrifying Callas, the most celebrated Norma since Ponselle. At the peak of her powers in her signature role, she emits an outburst of energy that in no way inhibits the accuracy of her articulation and the fullness of her tone, and she caps the scene with a phenomenal high D. Her partners, Simionato as Adalgisa and Mario Del Monaco as Pollione, represent the stellar level of singing that prevailed in Milan in the mid-1950s.


N.B. This is the first of two posts we will dedicate to Bellini’s Norma.
                                                              

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