(Norma jigsaw puzzle, ca. 1928)
NORMA: BARTOLI, JO, OSBORN, PETUSSI; La Scintilla, ANTONINI DECCA COMPLETE
One of the most beautiful and moving moments in this remarkable performance occurs as part of Bellini’s long finale. Norma forgives her straying lover Pollione, and tells him that she still loves him. Pollione is so moved by her sweetness that all of his emotion for her returns. Cecilia Bartoli floats “qual cor tradisti” with extraordinary mastery of breath, word and rhythm; it’s heart breaking, very personal. John Osborn, Pollione, responds with an equal sweetness and tenderness. And the superb orchestra, using instruments of the period, La Scintilla, plays the rocking, lullaby-like accompaniment with amazing delicacy and beauty. It’s a suspended moment of total magic. This recording is full of these moments; it provides a unique and revelatory experience of the opera.
Alright, that is a typical first paragraph in a good to rave review for a complete performance on CD. It's true, that's a magical moment and there are more of them.
So much for reviews, then. This effect is in most cases only possible on a record, of course. The moment as described would be lost at a huge place like the Met, and in many other opera houses that seat two or more thousand people. It doesn’t sound “faked”. The engineers have achieved a believable acoustical space, nothing sounds over miked (a problem with Bartoli’s attempt to revisit La Sonnambula). But the mikes create a space small enough for this very quiet account of the music to sound.
Since a live performance with many of the same performers has gotten some raves (and some mixed) reviews from
within the last few weeks, presumably the approach can
work in the reality of a bigger theater, but of course adjustments would have
to be made. Philip Gossett in his great and essential book, Divas and Scholars (Chicago) makes the
point that not only scholarship but practicality must work in live performances
where circumstances can vary considerably, as they did when the works were new. Salzburg
Still, before we leave delicacy at the Met behind, it is possible for sweetly inflected, very soft music to carry even in that barn. But I’ve only heard two conductors achieve it, Carlos Kleiber and the miraculous Christian Thielemann, in his astounding note complete Die Frau ohne Schatten. (Going back a way, Leonard Bernstein achieved an amazing responsiveness and variety of attack, including miraculous delicacy from a less good orchestra in the Falstaffs he led back in the sixties). Repertory performances are not really conducive to that kind of rethinking and rehearsal, and more ordinary conductors rarely work for those kinds of effects. Listening to the vaunted Fabio Luisi bang his way through repertory this season at the Met, with less insight than say Joseph Keilberth, shows that even a conductor reportedly popular with the orchestra and as far as the press office has it, “of genius” can do very little or perhaps cares less about nuance.
But even a less ordinary conductor can fail to achieve a persuasive delicacy and lightness. William Christie, one of the most important “authentic” conductors in the world (and a great keyboard player) failed to manage a good Cosi fan tutte at the Met. His effects misfired, tempos were poorly judged (breathless, arbitrary sounding); he was a problem for the cast. He could not achieve the unanimity of approach that the far less well known Antonini achieves on the Norma, no doubt with the encouragement of Cecilia Bartoli. (Christie’s remarkable accounts of Lully, Charpentier and Rameau operas in
Brooklyn, at the far from small BAM may have come
from being able to stay with his own company of instrumentalists and singers,
clearly not only convinced by him but used to his way of working in a repertory
where the orchestral writing is more soloistic).
(Giuditta Pasta, the first Norma)
As all the press has had it, this Norma is an attempt to do for Bellini’s most important opera what has been done for much earlier music. Norma is an opera that Tullio Serafin, the famous and unfortunately influential conductor used to say, made him “tremble”; an opera that essentially cemented the Romantic Movement in Italian Opera, and in fact, had a tremendous influence on Romanticism generally. (Gossett in surveying Serafin’s mangling of the score on the second Maria Callas commercial recording calls the result an “artistic wasteland.” He’s being kind). Wagner says somewhere that without Bellini there could have been no Wagner; he also referred to endless melody. Bellini’s influence was considerable, but Wagner is often accused of being swollen. A CD by Roger Norrington meant to take the swelling down wasn’t altogether convincing, but just a short time ago, at Salzburg, Christian Thielemann raised the pit for Parsifal and had the Dresden Staatskappelle play with the utmost delicacy to amazing effect. I have the telecast and may write about it next week.
I once wrote when wasting time on a list, that the seventy years from 1831 to 1901 contained almost the entirety of the “standard repertory”. Aside from the popular Mozart comedies, one Gluck piece and a couple of Rossini comedies that period embraces all the works opera obsessives embrace as essential. Verdi and Wagner had their careers entirely in that span, versimo began officially with Cavalleria rusticana in 1890; Puccini had his first successes, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet had written their hits, most of the Russian operas that show up in the standard rep had been written.
But there has been an accommodation of all pieces to a typical performing style; Norma is spiced with the strenuous late Verdi and the garlic of Leoncavallo. Aggressive conductors have inflated Wagner to their greater glory; the national French style for which Massenet and the others wrote has vanished.
But does a careful realization of Bellini hold some kind of key to how these works, even the later ones, should be performed? Pierre Baillot, wrote his famous treatise The Art of the Violin (1835) only four years after Norma. He wrote of the practical situation: “This change in notation [from the Baroque period] has been affected by the progress in dramatic music; it has caused the replacement in instrumental music of melodies which are for the most part full of charm but whose expression is not clearly indicated, by a more positive type of melody, adapted to the lyric stage and to the accents of passion.”
The idea was suddenly of “orchestral melody”, where the “band” is not merely functional but intensely expressive, part of the total dramatic effect. Wagner was struck by Bellini’s “endless melodies” and paid tribute to his expressive orchestration. La Scintilla does this to a hypnotic degree on this Norma, and hearing Thielemann realize the delicacy, the unexpected, sometimes peculiar, utterly haunting orchestral sounds in Parsifal makes me question just how much of the true Wagner, and the legitimate late Verdi we have missed. Composers, even when they disagreed or were captious about one another, nonetheless built on what their predecessors had done. The infinitely expressive, beautifully played orchestration on this recording, (though of course, instruments would be added by later composers) might contain a key to how these over familiar works really should sound, and perhaps that’s a doorway to new magic.
“Authentic” attempts at very popular pieces such as Bach’s Brandenburgs or Handel’s Water Music were similar to this Norma: surprises and occasional shocks were delivered as the best musicians to approach this music “freshly” did their best to go back to more authoritative scores, studied early scores for the markings of musicians more in touch with the style of performance the composers would have recognized, found or built replicas of the original instruments and looked into musical sources – the Terpsichorean qualities, the rhythmic snaps, the surprising syncopations reminded one that dance was a common quality in these pieces, and that tempos faster than anyone had attempted in hundreds of years were very likely. Performers also realized that Toscanini had been wrong with his puritanical, over driven style. With the composer present, instrumentalists and singers “graced” the music they played, often spontaneously, sometimes slightly the first time through, and then more generally in repeated material. In Erich Kleiber’s sacred fifties recording of The Marriage of Figaro nothing is graced or decorated. The “punctuations” that we know were typical in recitatives, and which, though small, could be deployed to provide abundant intention and insinuation, are scrubbed out; and the ornaments Mozart would certainly have expected when melodic material was repeated are banned. We are listening to a graceless heavy footed account of a brilliantly febrile and volatile work. This is held as some kind of monument, when in fact it is a grim distortion, and many of the singers pronounce poorly. The canonization of performances like this, the canonization of Toscanini/Verdi where his cuts in La Traviata turn a gifted composer, already very interesting for his understanding and deployment of the forms typical of the period, into a clunky amateur, creating grating holes in the musical fabric as he rushes the singers through, still lodge as important in the minds of “collectors” and people who write about performance. It’s safe for some idiot opining for a shrinking population in print, or those many morons on line to think they are safe from being thought fools for endorsing these dated and insensitive products of a bad time. Why, perhaps Theodore W. Adorno had it right, that Toscanini was nothing more than a whore for NBC, using THE CLASSICS to sell soap.
As Gossett acknowledges often, there were different conventions for decorating and even cutting works in the time of these early Romantic composers, sometimes they did the cutting themselves, or made changes to reflect the taste of a different but influential audience. And naturally the taste and preferences of the performers on a given occasion might yield very different results. Without recordings from the period, these mid 20th century pioneers and their most talented epigones had to make their own choices about ornaments, when they occurred and how extensive they were.
To return continuously to the period itself, contemporary documents, autographs (though they can be hard to decipher) early editions, the scores of singers of the period that they emended or decorated, leads to solutions that can vary from one production to another but remain true to the intentions of the creator. The Dictator conductor, romanticized throughout the 20th century was true to his pocket book and inflated reputation, hiding under the notion of “this is true”, when in fact so much of what these people did was false. (One can hear the pseudo Boris Godunov of the Soviet conductor, Golovanov from 1949, where aside from senseless cuts, he decorates and reinforces the already over decorated Rimsky version! The result is certainly amusing but it has little to do with Mussorgsky and I’m not sure Boris is really meant to be amusing).
But there has always been skepticism about this movement (I suppose Historically Informed Practice or HIP is the current name for it). The lack of recordings from the period of course is an issue; the conditions of manuscripts (or whether they exist complete at all), the difficulties of reading composers’ autographs when they do exist, understanding precisely what was meant, suggested that conductors and their soloists had to do not only puzzle solving, but a lot of guessing about what Bach, Handel or Monteverdi might really have expected to hear, and then, what in fact they settled for hearing. And even if many of the guesses came close to what these men expected, did our contemporary listeners really want to hear a small scaled St. Matthew Passion, with only males singing, when more than a century had passed with iconic works of that kind given ever more grandiose mixed sex performances? Messiah of course was heard most often swollen to an incredible degree.
With a small number of older pieces becoming hearty perennials, came arbitrariness. The Beecham/Goosens scoring of Messiah is thought wonderful by many nelly sniggerers (it can be found roaring like a chemically altered wild beast on RCA from 1959 in whiz bang stereo of that era, but its wild and gaudy treatment of music that suggests pious sincerity more often than theatrical outburst is also arguably far from what Handel had in mind (a pseudo intellectual attack parroted by many fools and printed in the New York Times in articles by Richard Tarushkin has been that none of us can know for sure exactly what Handel or any other long dead composer would have made of any performance of any kind. Not only Gossett, kindly, but the great Charles Rosen, less charitably, have praised Tarushkin for his gifts in inventing straw men and fake argumentation).
Handel did indeed have a concern for instrumental color, and in his operas, for vocal (and obbligato) flash and dash. As Rene Jacobs (one of the best opera conductors in the Historically Informed Movement) makes clear in his thrilling recording of Rinaldo (Harmonia Mundi -- if you haven't heard Scene 6 in act one, you haven't lived!), Handel had many of the great instrumental virtuosos of the period in his pit and the writing for the singers is hugely demanding (not always spectacularly realized there but with the right energy and abandon). But this was in the context of a small theater; singers and instrumentalists were in the same world (Roger Norrington, a scholar conductor of this movement, has written interestingly about eye contact and careful listening between musicians and the singers, who themselves were often well trained musically). Without the mass and noise of the Beecham realization, the striding arrogance of the “opera singer” soloists, ensemble achieved only by signals relayed from the conductor, Handel’s own performances probably were more delicate, varied, spontaneous and unanimous. One had not a “thinner” or “poorer” work but a truer one, notable for a profundity remarkably absent from all that blaring showing off. Again, no question, Beecham is a lot of fun, but what he does is something other than Handel. And is it as good as the results Handel would have gotten with his spectacular performers in London, long ago?
Bellini worked hard on Norma; he made many sketches before working on the autograph. After the first performances he made changes and provided alternatives (for the finale of act one, for example). As an inventor of Romanticism he was trying to balance the “professional practice” of his predecessors with an increased continuity and a gradual accumulation of emotional force. The musicologists who worked on the new performing edition here were Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi. Though there are many variations to deal with, this is a serious attempt to give one kind of performance that Bellini would have recognized, and the choices made are those from the first night. Bartoli, her colleagues, and the conductor Giovanni Antonini give a performance of Norma not as a grand monument, but as a musical work of profound humanity and extraordinary emotion. Tuned to 430hz as opposed to the usual 440hz, the sound is automatically warmer and richer, without either heaviness or forced, strident brightness. Bellini’s actual tempo markings (many faster than usually heard), the intimacy of the performing style, all guarantee a variety of attack, an automatic intensity and instant expressivity. The emotional points of the scenes are made eloquently; none of the singers duck or simplify their challenges but they all have a firm sense of this style, the words count, the “make believe” of the story is respected.
This is a beautiful account of Norma, there are also compromises. Three of the soloists have difficulties here and there. And as is always true on something that is recorded it freezes a particular set of "understandings" for good. There is room for the same processes that gave rise to these understandings to come to different ideas and there is room for the lessons learned from doing the work so differently than usual to (one hopes) find more imposing, or fresher or easier soloists.
I’m sure Bartoli is perfectly aware that she is making herself a target. Opera lovers can tick off legends and jokes who have attempted the role of Norma and disagree passionately about who belongs in which category. There are already those who have been attacking her “hubris” and insisting she is rotten. But every Norma on a complete recording is flawed to one degree or another. Bartoli’s two enormous strengths are her command of language and the nuances the role demands. It’s not only that she has the verbal assurance and clarity of a native speaker, but the declamatory force of a great actress. The declamation so crucial in the role has never been done as interestingly, imaginatively and vividly, without the “operatic” carrying on the “traditional” style demands. Bartoli captures the feeling of a sequence, as when she is tempted to kill her children, and then varies and inflects the words and the music they give rise to with tremendous subtlety, imagination and depth of feeling. What easily becomes hammy elsewhere is human here. Bartoli doesn’t need to make a meal out of Norma’s expressions of rage or anguish for them to land with force, any more than she needs to sob, gulp or shriek (as many of the Normas on record do) to signal the character’s grief, fear and resignation. She understands the difference between Bellini and Mascagni; Callas and most of the others did not.
Something else that will be held against Bartoli is that this is very much an ensemble performance. There is superb give and take between cast members; the balancing and blending of voices, the way singers contrast or match their timbres, is extraordinarily rewarding. The orchestra is a part of this, beauty of tone provided by the wooden flutes, the gut strings, the way in which the instrumentalists blend and contrast with one another as well as offset the singers, causes one to make the surprising discovery that Bellini was a master of orchestral effect. This is Norma reclaimed as great music, not merely a star turn. The conductor, Antonini, works hand in glove with the singers, providing both dramatic excitement and, as required, lyric repose.
Vocally, Bartoli is at her best in lyric music, the repeats of which she ornaments with imagination to great effect. In the bravura writing she can turn choppy and display effort. She’s rather like Milanov in that regard except she has intellect, musicianship and seriousness. She has to do some obvious feinting to get through Casta Diva and especially it’s cabaletta (fast section) “Ah, bello a me ritorna” but I loved Sediziose voci – she and the best of her colleagues, the outstanding bass, Michele Petussi, actually talk to one another with intensity and a sense of high stakes rather than belting out their lines to a big theater. That Norma finds herself in a dire position, in love with the Roman her people want to destroy but loyal to her people as well is powerfully communicated as is the bitterness and resignation of her father (Petussi) who must obey her. The intensity, the “actuality” of the emotion in their scene actually sets up her following difficult scena as drama musicalized, rather than as an opportunity for display. Norma’s prayer is not somnolent, nor is it an excuse for effects; its wandering vocal line and ornaments suggest unease under the solemnity, and the cabaletta also serves a purpose in illuminating Norma’s almost hysterical obsession with Pollione, which will justify her vindictive fury when she discovers his betrayal. Though there are much better sung versions of this scena on records, none convey the character’s humanity or vulnerability as strongly.
But while those limits are real they aren’t the whole story. No one has heard the opera like this, given with seriousness, passion, precision and an attention to details. The hero doesn’t bellow Italian tenor style but sounds very much like the seducer he is intended to be. John Osborn struggles with his difficult, martial opening aria but improves as the opera goes on, finding the humanity in a role usually yelled at the balcony. Norma’s father, Oroveso is beautifully sung by Petussi, who sounds like a human being, pronounces with eloquence and who is never lost in the ensembles (as usually happens). Finally, there is the issue of the young woman who Pollione has seduced, Adalgisa. This has usually been given to a mezzo soprano, often an aggressive one, though she is meant to be a girl who grows from naiveté to wisdom and bravery. Sumi Jo, a coloratura soprano of long experience, offers the essential contrast with Bartoli; their famous duets are sung as music not as contests. Jo conveys the vulnerability and sings much of her music with great sweetness and sensitivity, despite sounding a little flinty and pressed in the more virtuosic passages.
If this recording succeeds in turning attention to what Bellini really expected to hear and instills a respect for what he really wrote, it will have been one of the great opera recordings of the new century. On its own, it is an astonishing introduction to a great masterpiece, bruised, coarsened and misrepresented on all of its other recordings.