Norman was, of course, a dramatic soprano. Had she followed convention, she would have found a prominent place in the core offerings of premier opera companies. Her power and sumptuous timbre marked her as a worthy successor to, say, Zinka Milanov in the Italian canon or Kirsten Flagstad in the German. But she deviated from the prescribed path early in her career by eschewing Verdi (except for two rare operas she performed only in the recording studio) and avoiding the Wagnerian diva’s obligatory Isoldes and Brünnhildes. And she never engaged with the most popular opera composer of the 20th century, Puccini. In the peak years of Norman’s international fame she embraced Purcell, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Janáček, Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Poulenc, and in doing so, was instrumental in reshaping the taste of the public and the standard offerings of the major lyric theatres.
In 1969, at only twenty-four, Norman made her opera debut with the prestigious Deutsche Oper in Berlin as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The Thuringian princess became one of her favored roles. In her ecstatic entrance aria, “Dich teure Halle (O cherished hall),” Elisabeth invests the space with memories of her beloved minnesinger Tannhäuser and her joy at his return. In a 1985 London concert the audience gives an extended ovation to the singer’s stunning exhibition.
Another of Norman’s early Berlin roles was the Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. In the exquisite “Porgi, Amor (Love, grant me respite)” she entreats Amor to rekindle the affection of her philandering husband. Norman’s impeccable legato and clarity of attack limn the introspection of the Countess, her heroic voice hushed to the finely spun piano dynamics. We hear the soprano in the 1971 recording of the complete opera, conducted by Colin Davis.
Ariadne in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos was, by far, the role Norman sang most frequently in her nearly one hundred appearances in over more than thirteen seasons at the Met. Both the comic Prima Donna of the Prologue and the tragic Ariadne of the opera seria suit the soprano’s temperament and her prodigious vocal resources. Norman negotiates the more than two-octave span of the aria, “Es gibt ein Reich (There is a kingdom),” from G sharp, well below the comfort zone of most sopranos, to high B flat, much of it forte, with remarkable evenness of timbre. Her crystalline diction conveys the despair of the Cretan princess, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the deserted isle of Naxos, as she begs for the deliverance of death. We hear Norman in a 1988 Leipzig recording led by Kurt Masur. A DVD of her Met Ariadne, made the same year, is available on Youtube.
Post Script: Jessye Norman was the object of deep affection and high regard in France. She was the recipient of several official honors, including the Légion d’honneur. A measure of the esteem she enjoyed was the choice of Norman, an American artist, to sing “La Marseillaise” in the spectacular celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14, 1989. Draped in the Tricolor that recalled “Marianne,” the national personification of the French Republic, she stood at the foot of the obelisk at the center of the Place de la Concorde and unfurled her huge voice in this extravagant rendition of what is arguably the most stirring of national anthems.