Vincenzo Bellini – Norma
CAST: Norma: Montserrat Caballé, Pollione: Placido Domingo, Adalgisa: Fiorenza Cossotto, Oroveso: Ruggero Raimondi, Flavio: Kenneth Collins, Clotilde: Elizabeth Bainbridge
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Carlo Felice Cillario, conductor
RCA, 1972 (2015)
Monserrat Caballé had performed in public only the famous Casta diva during a concert for the thirtieth year anniversary of the Spanish Radio before she made her debut in Norma at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcellona in 1970. She had already turned down many offers to sing the role, but at last she persuaded herself to be ready to face it superbly and on the night of the premiere she achieved a complete triumph, although she remained unmoved and undertook a revision of the role for the second performance which was to take place three days later.
If the debut was awaited for a long time, the official recording of Caballé’s Norma came soon after, in 1972, with an outstanding cast (featuring international stars as Placido Domingo as Pollione and Fiorenza Cossotto as Adalgisa) and, unfortunately, a not very original conductor.
This Norma, more than other official or pirate recordings, shows Monserrat Caballé at her best and it really gives a taste of the qualities that no less a person than Maria Callas found in her Spanish colleague in 1970. Callas addressed Caballé with these words: «you are exactly the right voice type for this role and for you much the best thing to do is simply to follow Bellini’s line. You find your own way to the musical heart of the drama, just as I do, but through your own unique vocal qualities» (this comment is quoted by R. Pullen and S. Taylor in their biography on Caballé Monserrat Caballé. Casta diva, p. 154).
In Norma, Caballé seems to have fully applied this suggestion, consciously or not. Lacking the Greek soprano’s dramatic temperament but knowing how to reinterpret the role, Caballé endows her Norma with lyricism when it comes to the public side of the Gallic priestess, but also with a more concrete, human side when she is not in front of her people. The famous Casta diva is therefore one of the most spiritual, sincere invocations of the divinity, embellished by perfect agility, silvery high notes and a flawless vocal line, while the cabaletta Ah! Bello a me ritorna blends technical rigour to some tender accents that are just hinted here, but that anticipate the tenderness Caballé expresses in the first duet with Adalgisa, when she remembers Norma’s first encounter with Pollione.
Another step in the definition of the character is the finale of the first act, when Caballé is able to describe the course which takes Norma from the gladness for Adalgisa’s happy love to the first suspect that her suitor may be Pollione (note her alarming «Roma?» and the apprehensive «Prosegui!» when Adalgisa reveals her that she has a Roman lover) until her rampant anger explodes in an unrestrained legato. Her thirst for revenge is not destined to last very long and, even in the scene in which she wonders to murder her sons, a note of humanity and remorse is always present. After the joyous moment of Sì, fino all’ore estreme, Caballé and Norma are ready for tragedy: her fury is more believable when she menaces Pollione in In mia man alfin tu sei than before, but even more stunning are the touching accents she finds after her self-accusation and when she implores her father to save her children. This is a powerful, stirring ending and confirms Montserrat Caballé’s perfection.
If Caballé had made her debut in Norma only two years before this recording, Placido Domingo too was struggling with one of his firsts Pollioni. It is for this reason that some features of the character are not completely put into focus, but, from a general point of view, the main traits of Pollione are clearly developed. Domingo’s Pollione is heroic and affectionate at the same time, with moreover a noble nuance that the Roman general originally lacks and that makes him a little more sympathetic. Pollione is therefore not a boaster but a proud warrior with just a hint of arrogance in Meco all’altar di Venere, while he is a passionate lover in the duet with Adalgisa. When he finally is captured by his enemies, Domingo portrays him as a still dignified person, who moreover reveals tender feelings towards the children he had previously abandoned.
Adalgisa has a great interpreter in Fiorenza Cossotto, who portrays the young girl’s inquietude and sweetness, the former expressed in her enchanting Sgombra è la sacra selva, the second easily distinguishable in the duet with Pollione (especially in the second part, starting from «Ciel! Così parlar l’ascolto»). Oddly enough, her pronunciation of the Italian language is not very clear, but the intensity of feelings of her Adalgisa, her burnished timbre and her heartfelt participation make her ideal for this role.
As for Ruggero Raimondi, he is an incisive Oroveso and increases the authoritativeness of the old druid with a remarkable stressing of the words.
I have some reservations on Carlo Felice Cillario’s conduction. Cillario indisputably follows the path of the best tradition of the first part of the 20th century, but he seems to relax rather than to act. The best feature of his conduction is that he leaves the singers total freedom, but his conduction is usually weak and slow. This is a flaw affecting in particular Ah! Bello a me ritorna and other crucial points where more energy would have been appreciated and Cillario seems to awake only in significant points as the finale of the first act, in Sì, fino all’ore estreme and in the thundering finale of the second act. The overture, moreover, is spoilt by the unpleasant sound of the winds, a problem that later disappear and that probably is due to the recording technique.
The concurrence of Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto make this a memorable Norma. This is not “the” definitive recording of Bellini’s masterpiece only because there are many other excellent performers in other fine versions, but if someone has a list of favourite Normas, this one should have a place in it.