Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, September 25, 2017

Norma, 2: Two Duets and a Transcendent Final Ensemble

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In the first of the two posts we devote to Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 work (see Norma 1: Raising the Bar), we illustrate the opening act through three excerpts. The first is a rendition of “Casta Diva” in which the legendary American soprano of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Rosa Ponselle, in the role of the Druid priestess vowed to chastity, offers a prayer to the moon goddess. In the second clip, the Franco-Italian Gina Cigna, active in the 1930’s,  as Norma, in duet with Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa, a novice priestess, sings “Ah, rimembranza,” a recollection of the passionate onset of her love for the Roman proconsul Pollione. In the last excerpt, the trio that concludes the act, Maria Callas as Norma, Giulietta Simionato as Adalgisa, and Mario Del Monaco as Pollione confront the tragic consequences of their intertwined transgressions.

In this post, we continue to review the parade of great Normas of the past, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé, leading to the contemporary Sondra Radvanovsky, who tonight will open the 2017-2018 Met season in the exacting title role.

In 1952, when Maria Callas sang her first London Norma, the brief part of her confidante, Clotilde, was taken by a company member of the Royal Opera, the spinto Joan Sutherland, who was currently singing Verdi’s Aïda and Amelia (in Un Ballo in Maschera). Seven years later Sutherland became an overnight sensation and a global superstar as one of Callas’s bel canto heroines, Lucia di Lammermoor. Sutherland took immediate possession of the dramatic-coloratura roles that Callas had reclaimed from neglect, and added many of her own. In 1963 in Vancouver, it was Sutherland’s turn to become Norma, the supreme test for her voice type. The Adalgisa of the occasion, a role Bellini had written for a high soprano, soon appropriated by mezzo-sopranos, was the mezzo Marilyn Horne. Horne lightens the texture of her voice to suggest the youth and innocence of her character. Equal to Sutherland in the florid repertoire, she matches her partner in precision of articulation, of embellishment, and, of tone.

The duet, “Mira, O Norma,” from a 1970 television program made just after Horne’s Metropolitan debut as Adalgisa, provides evidence of the affinity of the two divas. Just prior to the duet, Norma has resolved to kill herself and deliver her children into the care of their father, Pollione, and especially of Adalgisa. Adalgisa calls forth the children as she beseeches Norma to live for their sake. The two women pledge eternal friendship in the joyous caballeta.

Another key figure in the bel canto revival of the late 20th century was Montserrat Caballé. In her repertory of extraordinary variety, the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini hold a privileged place. We hear her as Norma in a 1974 festival performance at the Roman theatre of Orange. This excerpt captures Caballé in customary command of the scene’s florid requirements, and particularly alert to the character’s explosive temperament. Her Pollione is Jon Vickers in what, for him, was a rare bel canto excursion.

Incited by Norma, the Druids have risen up against the enemy Roman occupiers and have captured Pollione. In this duet, Norma first vows to spare Pollione’s life if he promises to give up Adalgisa. He refuses. Norma then threatens that her rival will perish along with all the Romans. Pollione offers his own life in exchange for that of Adalgisa.

The Norma of the Met’s opening night 2017, Sondra Radvanovsky, has the full barrage of technique, memorable timbre, range, and expressivity that we associate with her predecessors. In the opera’s finale, moved by Pollione’s gesture of self-sacrifice, Norma summons the Druids and confesses that she has betrayed her vows. She pleads with her father, the Archdruid Oroveso, to spare her children. He succumbs to her entreaties. Pollione, now filled with love and admiration for Norma, follows her onto the funeral pyre. Radvanovsky deploys to heart-rending effect the ethereal pianissimo called for by Bellini’s characteristically long phrases, yet she is able, with her enormous instrument, to cap the climactic moments with brilliant fortissimos. The selection is from a 2015 performance in Barcelona.

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