Dateline: July 14, 2013:Not for the first time I've saved the best at the Whitsun Festival for last.
I will begin by saying I'm not a fan of Bellini - of the big three of bel canto he is my least favourite: #1 Rossini #2 Donizetti #3 Bellini. Yes I know many of my friends with better music knowledge than I find my love of Rossini a case of arrested musical development but there it is. More often than not Bellini bores me: in La Sonnambula I find myself almost as comatose as its eponymous heroine (oh come on now she was sleepwalking when she wandered into a big butch bass-baritone's bedroom?) and I Puritani is only one of two operas I've walked out of in 61 years of opera going. Sorry, poor old Elvira - what the hell sort of name is that for a Puritan girl? - going mad once is okay - twice no dice! I Capuletti e Montecchi - okay that one I love, it's fast, it's furious and it's filled with great music. Il Pirata, Beatrice di Tenda and La Stangeria - well let's admit it there's a reason they aren't revived all that often.
That leaves only the biggie: Norma. And I'm not all that crazy about it - give me Lucia di Lammamoor in her blood stained nightgown or Maria Stuarda in her soon to be blood stained nightgown but Norma running around cutting mistletoe and mooning over some Roman. As we use to say in Rome: boh!
And there in doth lie a slight problem. In those 61 years of opera going there are two performances that rank in the top 10 I've seen - both of them of .... Norma!
Back in 1974 at the Roman Theatre in Orange Montserrat Caballe fought a Mistral to sing what she - without exaggeration I believe - claimed to be the greatest performance of her life. The score that night was Monstie 1 - Mistral 0.
|Pollione - Jon Vickers (top left, bottom right) Norma - Montserrat Caballe (top and bottom right)|
Adalgisa - Josephine Veasey (bottom left) * Orange 1974.
Fast forward to this year's Whitsun Festival and a Norma that could not have been more different but in its own way was one of the most exciting evenings I've spent at the opera.
Friday May 17: LiebesOPFER
Before the ink had dried on the Festival prospectus the opera blogs were awash with "opera-lovers" damning Cecilia Bartoli's announcement that she would be singing Norma at this year's Whitsun Festival. The cries of sacrilege that she would even try to sing a role which belonged - do you hear me BELONGED - to the long gone Maria Callas arose from lips that where still suckling at their mother's breast when Callas retired from the stage. Her voice is too small! She doesn't have the technique! Her voice is too small! She's too mannered! Her voice is too small! She doesn't have the nobility! She's too small! If the blogasphere was to be believed it was going to be a bigger disaster than ... than... well any other role that Bartoli had sung that they from the comfort of their mostly Manhattan bedsits had seen on YouTube. This disdain for La Ceci seems to be in not only North American centred but particularly New Yorkcentric and emits from opera "lovers" who, I would hazard a guess, have never seen her live.
Haus für Mozart: 1900
Now like them I have seen La Ceci on video and agree that she has mannerisms that in close up can be irritating and like every singer she has her quirks and ticks both physically and vocally. My only experience with her on stage was in concert in Roma. That evening she played the role of the "diva" - and we were her adoring subjects. And frankly I had own doubts about how suitable she would be in a role I normally associate with grand divas of a different sort.
|Cecilia Bartoli as Norma, the spirit of Anna Magnani was never far from the surface in her riveting portrayal. Untraditional vocally and dramatically it was none-the-less a great interpretation.|
|Norma (Bartoli) is first approached by Pollione (John Osborn) as teachers are led away and the local school is closed by the occupying forces. One of the few examples of dumb show I've every seen that actually worked.|
A clean slate musically obviously would call for a clean slate dramatically; I will admit that I cringed when I saw the first production photos on the Salzburg website. It was to be a modern production by the team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, Bartoli's preferred directing team. I had not imagined the flapping canvas oak trees of the ottocento and frankly the thought of Bartoli in pseudo-druid draperies and laurel leave crown was slightly risible. But was I ready for updating to more recent times? Was this going to be another one of those regie-theatre concepts with barbed wire sets and Nazis in great coats so beloved in Germanic countries?
|Leader of the local Resistance, Oroveso (Michele Pertusi) cautions his followers to wait for a signal from his daughter, Norma.|
Yes there was a directors' concept and, thankfully, no there were no great coats or swastikas. Norma takes places in Roman occupied Gaul: Leiser and Caurier gave us an occupied country, perhaps France, in the 1940s. The forces of the occupiers appeared briefly in a dumb show prologue in the schoolroom where Norma is the principal and she and Pollione meet for the first time. After the school has been closed it is to become the meeting place for the Resistance Movement led by Oroveso (Michele Pertusi). There was one brief reference to Nazi-style helmets but honestly it could have been any occupied country at any time in recent history - Laurent said he thought it almost had a Balkan look to it. What is important is the dramatic thrust that it gave Romani's somewhat formula love-triangle. Suddenly it became the very modern story of a woman who had slept with the enemy and secretly betrayed her people and one of her young country women who was about to (or in this version did) make the same mistake. The bond between the two women became central to everything - Mira Norma wasn't about two sportive ladies showing their vocal chops but two desperate woman in a situation neither of them knew how to get out of. It was music drama at its finest - in a bel canto opera!!!!!
|Adalgisa (Rebeca Olvera) confesses to Norma that she has been seduced and fallen in love with one of the occupying army. Norma knows only too well the emotion.|
A great deal of that drama came from the change of voices from what has become traditional in Norma over the past two centuries. Rebeca Olvera (Adalgisa) has a light soprano voice - I kept thinking Norina or Adina, both parts sung by Giulia Grisi the creator of Adalgisa - perfect for the young, inexperienced girl who is so easily seduced by the suave Roman soldier. And seductive John Osborn (Pollione) was in tone and demeanor; though there was a certain sleazy cruelty to his seduction - you almost felt that if he didn't get his way he would take it! But it was in the final duets with Bartoli that he gave his best vocally and dramatically - matching her and making the change of heart almost believable.
|In the dramatic trio that ends the first act Norma realizes that the man that has seduced Adalgisa is the father of her children.|
|Adalgisa and Norma dream of escaping the inescapable - they have betrayed their people, their vows to the Resistance.|
The programme featured several photos of Anna Magnani and Bartoli acknowledged that she used the great actress's performance in Roma, citta aperta as a starting point for her portrayal of Norma. Nowhere was that more evident than in Dormono entrambi, the scena that begins Act 2. After the harrowing revelations of the Act 1 trio we discovered Norma, disheveled, drunk on bitterness and perhaps alcohol hunched against the wall of her apartment. The threat to her children was very real - again desperation was never very far from the surface. This made the subsequent scene with Adalgisa even more intense and as I said Mira Norma became a foolish attempt by two scared women bound by guilt to find a solution to their impossible situation.
|Norma confronts the man who has betrayed and taunts him - she will reveal the name of his lover and he will watch as her countrymen take their revenge on her betryal.|
From there the drama swept along, irrevocably until that electrifying moment when after taunting the bound Pollione, she blurts out, not to the crowd but directly into his face, Son Io - the confession that seals her death. The subsequent appeal to her father for her children had an aching tenderness - again with a slight edge of desperation. As Laurent said afterwards, Michele Pertusi's Oroveso may have agreed but somehow you felt these children (one an infant) would not live long after their mother and that this Norma may have felt that in her heart.
Granted Baroli's dramatic and even vocal approach may have robbed the part of some of the "nobility" that has become associated with Norma but it was a complete exciting portrait from curtain raise until her final sacrifice. She wasn't trying to match any of the ghosts of the past - nor did she need to - this was Bartoli's Norma.
But as much drama as there was on stage it was equally match by the drama in the pit. Conducting Orchestra La Scintilla, the fine period ensemble of the Zurich Opera, Giovanni Antonini seldom let the temperature or pace drop. I understand there has been some criticism of his conducting on the album that Decca released to coincide with the Salzuburg premiere. I purposely avoided listening to it until long after the performance and find the accusation that he pushes things unfounded either in the theatre or on disc. There were grace moments - the introduction to Act 2, Norma's plea to her father - but he obviously saw the score as not simply a succession of arias, duets and trios but an overall dramatic sweep of music that took us along to its tragic and fiery end
|Bound together Norma and Pollione face death in one of the most incredibly dramatic endings I've ever seen to any theatrical production in my life.|
I've seen Norma as Grand Opera and I've seen Norma as Music Theatre and both experiences have moved me to tears and had me on my feet cheering.
*I've yet to come across a term for the die-hard Bartoli fans so figure this will do as well as anything.
PS: Though Leiser and Caurier filled the production with grand moments there were some subtle pieces of staging that were impressive and suggest the work that they put into their concepts. In the first act Pollione and his aide Flavio stole into the school room after the Resistance members had left; as his aide searched the room, Pollione took a book from a shelf, leaved through it distastefully and methodically tore out a few pages and let them fall to the floor. Later Oroveso saw them, picked them up and gave a troubled look around the room - they were being watched! Anyone who has ever been under surveillance will tell you that it is not uncommon for a "calling card" to be left - just to let you know that you are being observed. An almost unnoticeable piece of business but one that added to the tension that was carefully being built up.
All production photos are courtesy the Salzburg Festival
© Hans Jörg Michel
July 14 -1902: The Campanile in St. Mark's Square, Venice collapses, also demolishing the loggetta.