18 July 2009

CD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini – NORMA (B. Sills, S. Verrett, E. di Giuseppe, P. Plishka; DGG)

Bellini: NORMA (Beverly Sills, Shirley Verrett; James Levine - DGG) VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835) – Norma: B. Sills (Norma), S. Verrett (Adalgisa), E. di Giuseppe (Pollione), P. Plishka (Oroveso), D. Wallis (Clotilde), R. Tear (Flavio); John Alldis Choir; New Philharmonia Orchestra; James Levine [recorded in Town Hall, Watford, Hertfordshire, England, during July and August 1973; DGG 477 818 6]

Originally recorded for ABC Records, this studio recording of Norma is now issued on commercial compact discs for the first time by Deutsche Grammophon in a continuation of the label’s dedication to the recorded legacy of American coloratura prima donna Beverly Sills.  One of the greatest bel canto heroines, Norma was central to the repertories, both stage and studio, of Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Montserrat Caballé, so the desire to preserve Ms. Sills’ performance of the role was surely the most central raison d’être for the recording.  This Norma also introduced the record-buying public to a young conductor already making his mark at the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine.

Among sopranos who have commercially recorded Norma, only Renata Scotto (in James Levine’s second studio recording of the opera for Sony, also recently reissued as a part of Sony’s new Opera House series) is a native Italian.  The ABC/DGG recording expands the cultural cross-pollination by presenting a quartet of American singers in the leading roles.  Welcome as a large-profile celebration of native talent, it is undeniable that the Italianate qualities that permeate every page of Norma are undermined in this performance.  Never noted for his work in bel canto scores, James Levine conducts in a manner more appropriate for middle-period Verdi than for Bellini, downbeats pounded out with greater bombast than the delicate arcs of Bellini’s melodies require even when the music is robust.  [The recent evidence of Maestro Levine’s conducting in Metropolitan Opera performances of Mary Zimmerman’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor and, above all, Adrian Noble’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth suggests that Maestro Levine has found in the autumn of his career a far greater sympathy for bel canto.]  The New Philharmonia Orchestra abet Maestro Levine’s approach with gusto, playing very well and maintaining accuracy of ensemble that is rare among rival ensembles, especially those based in Italy.  Not wholly avoiding the British-inflected diction and poise for which they are known, so valuable in Händel oratorios, the John Alldis Choir sing with bite and are often superb, as in their hushed expressions of horror and disbelief at the moment in the final scene in which Norma reveals that it is she who betrayed her priestly vows.  It is not likely that a listener familiar with Norma would mistake this for an idiomatic performance in the Italian tradition, but choir, orchestra, and conductor nonetheless lay the foundation upon which a credible, effective performance of the opera could have been built.

Vocally and dramatically, the finest performance is the Adalgisa of Shirley Verrett, herself a respected Norma.  In fact, in the course of this performance it is possible to suspect that a better recording might have resulted had she and Ms. Sills exchanged roles.  It has been a matter of great discussion for the past half-century that Bellini composed the role of Adalgisa for the soprano Giulia Grisi and expected a soprano in the role.  Her successful assumptions of soprano roles notwithstanding, Ms. Verrett’s voice (especially as heard in this recording) is emphatically that of a mezzo-soprano, a firm and penetrating upper register aligned without audible breaks with a strong, deep-reaching chest register.  In this performance, Ms. Verrett makes every possible effort at lightening her tone in order to meet the requirements of the virginal Adalgisa, and the extent to which she succeeds is a testament to her considerable artistry.  Neither the florid demands of the music nor its high tessitura (even more challenging in this performance than in most, as the music is performed in Bellini’s original, higher keys) stretches Ms. Verrett beyond her means, and she produces many stunning moments, particularly in her fearless ascents to top notes.  Dramatically, Ms. Verrett offers a spirited Adalgisa, both a loyal friend to Norma and a sensual lover to Pollione.  In the trio that ends the first act, in which Adalgisa renounces Pollione’s love and entreaties to return with him to Rome, Ms. Verrett’s performance reveals strength of will and resolve atypical of Adalgisa in most performances: her faltering emotions mended by force, this Adalgisa is not a woman content with a secondhand passion.  Though lacking the easy idiomatic command of Ebe Stignani and the extraordinary stylistic acumen of Marilyn Horne, Ms. Verrett proves a convincing Adalgisa who is more than in most performances the central figure in the drama.

The secondary roles of Clotilde and Flavio are taken by Delia Wallis and Robert Tear, respectively, the latter making full use of the sturdy voice and occasionally lugubrious delivery familiar from so many performances and recordings of British repertory.  Oroveso was first sung on a commercial recording by the wonderful Italian bass Tancredi Pasero, but even he failed to make a significant impression in the role aside from singing the music with magnificent, rolling tone.  Paul Plishka’s first recorded Oroveso (he also sang the role opposite Renata Scotto and Tatiana Troyanos in Mr. Levine’s second recording) satisfies in a similar vein: the music is well-served by the young Mr. Plishka’s sturdy, secure voice, but the role makes little impact.

Pollione is sung by Enrico di Giuseppe, who brings to his task the ostensible benefit of having been the son of Italian immigrants.  Unlike the title role, Pollione is represented on commercial recordings by two of the most celebrated Italian singers of the twentieth century, Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco, not to mention a widely-circulated Metropolitan Opera broadcast in which Carlo Bergonzi sings a thrillingly ringing, virile Pollione.  These tenors all brought considerably larger voices than di Giuseppe’s to the role, which in the context of the refined requirements of bel canto is not an immediate guarantee of success.  Far more than Bellini’s other leading tenor roles, however, Pollione is unquestionably a bravura role, his aria and cabaletta in the first act having a splendidly martial swagger befitting a Roman Proconsul.  Mr. di Giuseppe sings throughout with commitment and assurance, along with great security in the upper register (including the top C in ‘Meco all’altar di Venere,’ which the aging del Monaco did not attempt even in his studio recording for DECCA), but the voice lacks the squillo implicit in the music.  For all that he has successfully seduced two vestal priestesses – no mean feat! – Pollione’s music leaves no doubt that he is more conqueror than Casanova.  Mr. di Giuseppe’s elegance and precision are welcome, as is his generally effective clearing of his coloratura hurdles in ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ (a challenge often eased in performances and recordings by re-assignment of the repeat of the most difficult passage to Norma), but the role does not make its full effect.  It is disheartening to find fault with accomplished, disciplined singing, and Mr. di Giuseppe sings Pollione’s music very well in terms of production of the notes indicated in the score, but a measure of the focus of Norma is lost when a performance includes a Pollione whose voice is not apt for his music.

Norma has been memorably portrayed by a variety of voices: dramatic sopranos (Rita Hunter, Zinka Milanov, and Elinor Ross), spinto sopranos (Montserrat Caballé and Leyla Gencer), dramatic coloraturas (Cristina Deutekom and Dame Joan Sutherland), and lighter coloraturas (June Anderson and Edita Gruberová).  It was Maria Callas, a singer who largely defied Fach classifications, who proved the most insightful and influential Norma of the twentieth century.  Though she shared much of Callas’ repertory, it was in lyric coloratura roles that Beverly Sills was most successful, her greatest role arguably having been Massenet’s Manon.  Opportunities for the interpolated flights of virtuosic fantasy often employed by Ms. Sills were far fewer in Norma than in other bel canto scores that she sang, limiting to a degree not only Ms. Sills’ vocal identification with the music but also her connection with a role frequently cited by singers as one of the most vocally treacherous and emotionally draining in the Italian repertory.  Significantly, Ms. Sills’ opera-house performances of Norma were few.  Ms. Sills’ technique is beyond reproach, even in the fearsomely difficult music of Norma, and she sings the complex divisions in such passages as the first-act trio and the aforementioned ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ more impressively than many of her recorded rivals.  In the latter number, she also proves one of only two Normas on commercial studio recordings who inserts an interpolated E-flat in alt into the coda of the duet, indicative of the security of Ms. Sills’ command of her extensive upper register.  [Sutherland includes the E-flat in her first DECCA recording.  Gruberová also interpolates the top E-flat in her Nightingale recording, taken from concert performances.]  This display of an exuberantly healthy voice is harmless, but ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna,’ Norma’s first-act cabaletta, is damaged by over-emphatic embellishment that distorts the melodic line, ever a peril of Ms. Sills’ prodigious abilities.  ‘Casta diva,’ with her lines in the duet ‘Mira, o Norma’ the most lyrical music Norma is given to sing, is the most beautiful and effective portion of Ms. Sills’ performance.  As with Mr. di Giuseppe’s Pollione, Ms. Sills’ Norma is undermined most perceptibly by questions of timbre and amplitude.  Ms. Sills’ voice as recorded is a bright, occasionally edgy instrument, the tone very forward and produced on the breath.  Norma may not necessarily require a larger sound, but darker, rounder tones than were at Ms. Sills’ command prove more congenial in the music.  Dramatically, Ms. Sills’ provides efficient, never less-than-competent indications of the emotions that are inherent in the music, but discernible personal insights are almost completely absent.  Though she is a consistently responsive artist, the timbre and texture of Ms. Sills’ voice do not combine pleasingly with Ms. Verrett’s, especially when they are singing in major thirds.  What Ms. Sills does in this recording is sing Norma’s music with unflappable technical assurance.  This accomplishment cannot be attributed to many great Normas, but Ms. Sills’ Norma ultimately cannot be said to rise above merely good singing because there is in this performance no indication that Norma is in any way different from the sleepwalking Amina, the deluded Lucia, or the righteously indignant Maria Stuarda.

As in the case of EMI’s reissue of Ms. Sills’ studio recording of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi with Dame Janet Baker, this Norma is an important addition to the Sills discography.  It is not, sadly, a significant entry in the Norma discography, for all its polish and vocal security.  It is a remarkable testimony on both the quality of Norma, a surpassing quality noted even by a critic as harsh as Richard Wagner but often doubted and openly denied in latter days, and the inspired feats of vocalism and dramatic directness the score has drawn from performers that a recording as shapely and well-sung as this one fails to garner lingering affection.  As a souvenir of some of America’s finest native vocal talent, the performance is happily heard, but it is difficult to banish thoughts of what a fine recording of, say, Beatrice di Tenda this might have been.