Vincenzo Bellini – Norma
CAST: Norma: Renata Scotto, Pollione: Giuseppe Giacomini, Adalgisa: Tatiana Troyanos, Oroveso: Paul Plishka, Clotilde: Ann Murray, Flavio: Paul Crook
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Chorus Master: John McCarthy
National Philharmonic Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
After many great Normas were released in the Fifties and the Sixties, when live and studio recordings presented significant performances as those of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, the Seventies were not equally flamboyant but definitely more eccentric in their outcome. Next to Montserrat Caballé’s excellent Norma (recorded in 1972), two other outstanding but not equally appropriate sopranos gave voice to the Gallic priestess in the same years: Beverly Sills, who characterized the role with amazing vocal acrobatics but little dramatic power, and Renata Scotto, who sang the title role in the present recording in 1979.
Renata Scotto’s Norma
Renata Scotto should be considered an unusual Norma, if not for her lyrical soprano voice, at least for her interpretation. Accustomed to sing bel canto, painstaking about expression and musically fitting, she infuses in Norma the same delicacy and grace which we expect from Giulietta or Amina, with a result that is very personal.
Scotto’s Norma is divided between two perfect halves, of which one is very feminine and graceful, the other implacably quick-tempered. While the former belongs to her “public” life (and to her “private” life in moments of peace), the latter appears when she deals with Pollione. This irascibility, however, transpires only when she talks to him, because in her thoughts he is treated in the same, gentle way she uses to invoke the goddess in Casta diva (listen to the cavatina and then to the cabaletta, which share the same feelings, though directed to two different entities). Norma’s duets with Adalgisa are – not surprisingly – tender and melancholic and, in the finale, Scotto really moves to tears with her pitiful supplications to Oroveso.
However, Scotto’s Norma is also implacable, I just wrote. Her fury is irrepressible when she discovers Pollione’s betrayal and her resentment does not pale in comparison with Maria Callas’s most disdainful accents. Scotto’s anger is as heartfelt as her kindness and her prerogative is that, after so many sweet notes, her outburst “Oh, non tremare, o perfido” resounds completely unexpected. The same scorn echoes in her last scene with Pollione In mia man alfin tu sei, where she also adds some sarcasm (when she refers to the massacre of the Romans).
The Other Singers
Giuseppe Giacomini is not one of the most flamboyant Pollione in the discography of Norma, but only because many great singers (Franco Corelli, Mario del Monaco and Carlo Bergonzi, to mention only the tip of the iceberg) preceded him in this difficult task. However, despite the fact that his voice lacks the ringing sound of other tenors, he is always accurate, sings with composure and dignity and is heroic enough to be convincing. Overall, he is really admirable.
Tatiana Troyanos sings Adalgisa with vocal and dramatic commitment, and is noteworthy for her introspection and for her elegant phrasing, despite her lack of dramatic flair.
Paul Plishka is quite disappointing as Oroveso, because both his hoarse voice and his non-involvement (even when he learns Norma’s motherhood he seems to belong to a completely different musical world) contribute to make him out of place.
James Levine’s familiarity with Norma is not (and will never be) deep enough to let him conduct it in a completely “canonical” way. In this recording, his choice of tempos is sometimes too quick and he does not grasp all the nuances and subtleties. And yet, Bellini’s music becomes torrential and vigorous – maybe too much, but not in such exaggerated way to deprive it of all its charm – and it is overall fluid, dramatic and limpid. In short, there is much more to appreciate than to blame or to regret in Levine’s reading.