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.

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.