Vincenzo Bellini – Norma
CAST: Norma: Joan Sutherland, Pollione: Luciano Pavarotti, Adalgisa: Montserrat Caballé, Oroveso: Samuel Ramey, Clotilde: Diana Montague, Flavio: Kim Begley
Chorus of the Welsh National Opera
Chorus Master: Andrew Greenwood
Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera
Richard Bonynge, conductor
Decca, 1988 (2011)
Joan Sutherland was almost at the end of her glorious career when she recorded Norma in studio in 1984. Her decline is evident, but, more than for other, equally illustrious singers, it is more similar to a swansong that decadence. I have also to admit that I think that Sutherland’s “decline” can be defined as such only in comparison with the high standards to which she accustomed us in the previous decades.
For this reason – and for the presence of two great singers as Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti – I am persuaded that this Norma deserves a place of honour in the discography of Bellini’s masterpiece, alongside with Sutherland’s earlier recording, made in 1964.
Joan Sutherland & Norma in 1984
Of course, the freshness of the Norma Sutherland recorded exactly twenty years before has gone, as well as the lustrous metal her beautiful timbre, which now is a little tarnished. And yet, her voice is still radiant and perfectly in tune. Her high notes are shimmering, while her middle register has a delicate nuance. Only occasionally her low register is not impeccable.
Sutherland’s entry in the recitative before Casta diva is not the best possible and some difficulties make you fear the worse. Anyway, this impression is not going to last. When you hear Sutherland sing the famous cavatina, her lightness and suavity, her seamless agility and intonation make you forget the insignificant flaws you have just heard. The cabaletta is an outstanding moment of bel canto singing and Sutherland’s embellishments and coloratura are riveting.
«The poetry of the priestess»
Of course, Sutherland’s Norma is not a statuesque, majestic figure as it was Callas’s. This is prevented not only by the Australian soprano’s irremediably imprecise diction, but also her temperament – and above all the quality of her voice. Sutherland sings the poetry of the priestess and not her resentment, so what she lacks on the dramatic front is completely recovered on the virtuosic and human sides. Listen to her sympathetic echo to Adalgisa’s story in their duet in the first act, or to the emotion in the first scene in the second act, or finally to the impetuous but never resentful scene with Pollione at the end of the opera. Despite her means are not those of her early years, Sutherland has still many things to say in this opera, in her own virtuosic and lyrical way.
Luciano Pavarotti (Pollione)
Luciano Pavarotti seems to have been extremely influenced by the primadonna. His Pollione is not a boaster, rather a passionate character. On the virtuosic side, it is worth notice the beautiful variations he adds to his cabaletta in the first act and the colour of his voice and his perfect intonation that make him suitable for this role.
Montserrat Caballé (Adalgisa) & Samuel Ramey (Oroveso)
Montserrat Caballé, who sang the title role in the recording of Norma she made in 1972 with Placido Domingo, is Adalgisa in the present recording. Actually, Caballé is one of the best Adalgisas in the discography of Norma. Her flexible, suave voice and her charming personality contribute to create an Adalgisa who is extremely convincing, nice and delicate. Her legato is so soft and elegant to be wonderful and her musicianship is such that she sings what is maybe the best duet Norma-Adalgisa in the first act. Furthermore, the blend of Caballé’s voice with Sutherland’s is one of the most perfect I have ever heard between two soprano.
Finally, Samuel Ramey is an excellent Oroveso thanks to his large, deep and expressive voice. It is to notice that Bonynge adopts a quite fast tempo for his first scene, so that, rather than appearing as a old man, Ramey’s Oroveso is rather a leader than a venerable druid.
Richard Bonynge’s Conduction
This quick tempo, together with the slow one Bonynge chooses for Pollione’s cavatina, is the only unpredictable (but neither disappointing nor trivial) thing in his conduction. As for the rest, he conducts with the same expertise and accomplishment of other bel canto operas. The draws bright and vivid colours from the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera and overall his Norma is less monumental and more human than usual, with emotional passages as the wonderful Casta diva and the two duets between Norma and Adalgisa, but also energetic and dynamic as the finale from the first act or the glorious chorus Guerra, Guerra in the second act.