28 January 2018

DVD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini — NORMA (M. J. Siri, S. Ganassi, R. Pelizzari, N. Ulivieri, R. Lo Greco, M. Pierattelli; Dynamic 37768)

IN REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini - NORMA (Dynamic 37768)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): NormaMaria José Siri (Norma), Sonia Ganassi (Adalgisa), Rubens Pelizzari (Pollione), Nicola Ulivieri (Oroveso), Rosanna Lo Greco (Clotilde), Manuel Pierattelli (Flavio); Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini”; Complesso di palcoscenico Banda “Salvadei”, Fondazione Orchestra Regionale delle Marche; Michele Gamba, conductor [Luigi Di Gangi and Ugo Giacomazzi, Directors; Federica Parolini, Set Designer; Daniela Cernigliaro, Costume Designer; Luigi Biondi, Light Designer; Carlo Morganti, Chorus Master; Recorded ‘live’ during performances in Arena Sferisterio, Macerata Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy, July – August 2016; Dynamic 37768; 1 DVD / Blu-ray, 144:00; Available from Dynamic (DVD / Blu-ray), Naxos Direct (DVD / Blu-ray), and major music retailers]

Amidst the rugged peaks carved in the craggy range of the Italian soprano repertoire by Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Giordano, and fellow composers remembered and forgotten, there is no altitude more elevated than that reached by Vincenzo Bellini in his Norma. In Felice Romani’s adaptation of Alexandre Soumet’s drama Norma, ou L’infanticide, first performed in Paris only eight months before the operatic Norma reached the stage of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 26 December 1831, Bellini had at his disposal one of the finest libretti of the Nineteenth Century, one in which the poet achieved near-perfect equilibrium between action and reflection. With Romani’s words as his impetus, the sensitive Bellini created the defining masterpiece of Italian bel canto and at its center one of the most feared and career-defining rôles composed for the female voice. Since first sung in 1831 by Giuditta Pasta, Norma has revealed her secrets to each subsequent generation of listeners via the voices of members of one of opera’s most exclusive sororities. The lady who ascends unscathed to Norma’s pinnacle, from which the views of opera’s past and future extend from Monteverdi to Mascagni, earns the laurels of a high priestess of bel canto.

The history of recording Norma parallels the well-documented disintegration of bel canto technique in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. A tacit testament to the demands of the title rôle is the fact that, unlike recorded portrayals of many operatic heroines, there is not one Norma heard on a studio recording of the opera who did not sing the rôle on stage. Few sopranos can resist the understandable temptation to sing Norma’s ‘Casta diva’ in concert, but Norma is among the few pieces in the approach to which a modicum of common sense persists. Still, many voices that should not have been singing the rôle have been heard in Norma’s music in recent years. Increasingly, this must be said of all of the opera’s rôles: rare is the performance that can boast of fielding a wholly qualified voice in each part. Like all histories, opera’s continuing evolution is inherently cyclical, but it is now difficult to imagine a return to an era like that in which, in April 1970, the Metropolitan Opera presented Norma with Dame Joan Sutherland in the title rôle, Marilyn Horne as Adalgisa, Carlo Bergonzi as Pollione, and Cesare Siepi as Oroveso.

Staged in the vast space of the Arena Sferisterio in conjunction with the 2016 Macerata Opera Festival, the present Norma was filmed for DVD and Blu-ray release under the direction of Tizio Mancini as a showcase for the accomplishments of a well-integrated team of artists and craftsmen. Visually, this Norma is a fascinating, sometimes frustrating fusion of tradition and innovation. Employing primary-color sets and costumes by Federica Parolini and Daniela Cernigliaro, co-directors Luigi Di Gangi’s and Ugo Giacomazzi’s production occasionally seems to gaze southward, over the Pyrenees, from Bellini’s and Romani’s Gaul to a staging of Bizet’s Carmen. In some moments, there is a sultriness that seems wholly out of place, especially as it disappears when it might prove dramatically viable. Most regrettably, the production does not capitalize on its greatest assets. With one of today’s most experienced interpreters of Adalgisa returning to the rôle, there was no need to resort in this production to stock gestures superficially representative of the naïve priestess’s transition to betrayed, broken woman. Moreover, a youthful, attractive Norma does not need to strike poses in order to earn and engage the viewer’s attention and interest.

Luigi Biondi’s lighting designs are more difficult to assess in the context of a video recording, in which the frame of reference is established by the cinematography, than in the theatre, but they unobtrusively illuminate the tough, primeval world in which this Norma dwells. Violence lurks in every landscape and gesture: in this setting, Norma’s contemplation of slaying her own children is sickeningly credible. This vein of brutality flows in Bellini’s music and Romani’s words but is ultimately tempered by a triumph of humanity that in this productions seems implausible. Perhaps doing so brings the piece closer in mentality to modern audiences, but staging Norma as pseudo-verismo melodrama is a mistake. There is much in this Norma that is beautiful to behold, but the authentic spirit of bel canto is absent. Without it, Norma is just another opera, no matter how well it is performed.

Musically, this Norma is on stronger but far from ideal footing. Conductor Michele Gamba clearly knows and respects the score and has devoted careful study to mastering its many challenges. One of the greatest of those challenges is pacing a performance with tempi that keep the drama moving without distorting Bellini’s exquisite melodic lines or rushing the singers. This Gamba largely manages to do, navigating a course that avoids most of the pitfalls that upset conductors’ earnest efforts at successfully realizing the score’s expressive potential. Whether their efforts emanate from the pit or the stage, the musicians of Fondazione Orchestra Regionale delle Marche and Complesso di palcoscenico Banda “Salvadei” deliver their parts with enthusiasm that makes occasional untidiness of ensemble and intonational uncertainty forgivable, and chorus master Carlo Morganti’s preparation of Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini” produces choral singing that is exciting even when it is not altogether accurate. Though their endeavors also often seem to originate in a musical age that is not Bellini’s, Gamba and his orchestral and choral colleagues restore a measure of the requisite bel canto style missing from the production.

Ably representing Rome in Gaul as Pollione’s comrade in arms Flavio, tenor Manuel Pierattelli brings more voice to his music than many portrayers of the rôle have at their command. In fact, his clear, well-supported tone and forthright diction suggest that Pierattelli might prove to be an equally capable Pollione. Similarly, Bellini’s writing for Norma’s attendant Clotilde is entrusted to soprano Rosanna Lo Greco, who makes a strong impression despite the paucity of opportunities to display her voice’s best qualities. It is too much to ask that a Clotilde sound as though she might sing Norma acceptably, though it must not be forgotten that Joan Sutherland sang Clotilde opposite Maria Callas’s Norma at Covent Garden in 1952, but Lo Greco’s vocalism reveals that hers is a name to remember. Like their colleagues in this production, Pierattelli and Lo Greco are representatives of a new breed of singing actors whose vocal acumen is matched by naturalness before both audiences and cameras.

Hailing from the Alpine town of Arco, south of Brenner Pass in Italy’s Trentino province, bass Nicola Ulivieri honors the historical legacy of his native comune by depicting Oroveso with Italianate fervor and Teutonic discipline. At his entrance in Act One, Ulivieri voices ‘Ite sul colle, o druidi’ virilely, immediately establishing his Oroveso as a younger, stronger-willed figure than the character is in many productions. This is slightly at odds with his vocalism, which is more lyrical than declamatory, particularly in Act One. In Act Two, however, Ulivieri sings with surprising power, intelligently depicting Oroveso’s transition from spiritual leader in his nobly-sung ‘Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno’ to warmonger in the explosive ‘Guerra, guerra! Le galliche selve quante han querce producon guerrier.’ In the opera’s final scene, the bass makes Oroveso’s realization that he is the grandfather of half-Roman children a moment of true emotion, the horror of his hatred being turned against his own daughter and grandchildren clawing at the unyielding man’s heart. Ulivieri lacks the resonance of Tancredi Pasero, Ezio Pinza, and Cesare Siepi, but he is an effective, musical Oroveso.

The Pollione of tenor Rubens Pelizzari is a brash, rough-hewn soldier whose pursuit of Adalgisa seems more obsessive than affectionate. However passionate their liaison might have been, a woman of Norma’s temperament would surely feel glad to be rid of him. Nevertheless, Pelizzari has good ideas about interpreting Pollione and would likely be more sympathetic in a production that allows him to portray the character as an ordinary man rather than a chauvinistic archetype. Vocally, the tenor also displays a fine command of Pollione’s music. He omits the written top C in his otherwise solid performance of the aria ‘Meco all'altar di Venere,’ and his voicing of the cabaletta ‘Me protegge, me difende’ exudes an apt bravado. Pelizzari’s upper register lacks the squillo brought to the music by Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli, but he duets forcefully with Adalgisa in ‘Va’, crudele,’ gaining intensity as the vocal line rises above the stave. He holds his own in the magnificent trio that ends Act One, singing first ‘Norma! de’ tuoi rimproveri segno non farmi adesso’ and then ‘Fremi pure, e angoscia eterna pur m’imprecchi il tuo furore!’ with ardor.

Confronted in their Act Two duet with the news that Norma resolved to slaughter their children in retaliation for his infidelity, this Pollione groans ‘Ah! t’appachi il mio terrore’ in appalled apprehension. Pelizzari’s demeanor becomes lachrymose in the opera’s final scene, his statement of ‘Ah! troppo tardi t’ho conosciuta’ imparting self-pity instead of awe inspired by Norma’s sacrifice. Not unlike Ulivieri’s Oroveso, Pelizzari’s Pollione is a professional, not an unforgettable reading of the part, but professionalism in this music is not to be scorned.

Mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi has sung Adalgisa in an array of very different productions and opposite Normas of widely varying degrees of proficiency. With acclaimed performances of numerous Rossini rôles to her credit, Ganassi has the wonderful benefit of thorough knowledge of bel canto, and, not surprisingly, she contributes the most idiomatic singing to this Norma. When she begins to sing ‘Sgombra è la sacra selva’ in her Act One scene, there is no doubt that this is a deeply sensitive Adalgisa. Ganassi genuinely performs rather than merely singing the scene, articulating ‘Deh! proteggimi, o dio: perduta io sono’ with crushing emotional weight. She immediately seizes control in the duet with Pollione, phrasing ‘E tu pure, ah! tu non sai quanto costi a me dolente!’ with unmistakable sense of purpose.

Though shamed by her illicit relationship with Pollione, this Adalgisa asserts herself without hesitation in the first of her duets with Norma. Ganassi intones both ‘Sola, furtiva, al tempio io l’aspettai sovente’ and, moving into the trio, ‘Oh! qual traspare orribile dal tuo parlar mistero!’ with complete immersion in the text. Her delivery of ‘Ah! non fia, non fia ch’io costi al tuo core sì rio dolore’ is a lesson in the art of dramatic bel canto: with words and music in perfect balance, no exaggerated characterization is required.

In order for their exchanges in Act Two to be dramatically convincing, Adalgisa and Norma must be musical equals, and Ganassi enriches this performance with involved, intuitive singing. She pronounces ‘Norma! ah! Norma, ancora amata’ with burgeoning anxiety. The traversals of ‘Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi questi cari pargoletti!’ and ‘Sì, fino all'ore estreme compagna tua m’avrai’ that follow are uncommonly cathartic: Adalgisa’s joy and relief at her reconciliation with Norma are touchingly enacted. Intermittent unsteadiness and effort now affect Ganassi’s singing, but she remains a powerhouse Adalgisa for whom no apologies must be made. Bellini and Romani proffered no resolution for Adalgisa, leaving audiences to wonder what becomes of her after the deaths of the man she loved and her dearest friend. Come what may, an Adalgisa such as Ganassi’s surely lands on her feet.

From the first bars of the recitative with which Norma introduces herself, ‘Sediziose voci,’ it is apparent that Uruguayan soprano Maria José Siri brings to her inaugural assumption of the title rôle an important voice in the tradition of Gilda Cruz-Romo and Ljiljana Molnar-Talajić, sopranos with extensive Verdi and Puccini credentials who adapted their spinto voices to Norma’s cantilene and coloratura. In this performance, Siri’s portrayal of Norma recalls the interpretations of several of her celebrated predecessors. The abandon with which she acts the role with the voice resembles the Norma of Gina Cigna, heard in both the earliest complete radio broadcast performance and in the first studio recording of Norma. The emphasis on proper placement of tones brings to mind Zinka Milavov’s 1944 and 1954 Metropolitan Opera Norma broadcasts. Like Radmila Bakočević, she sings Norma without reticence, fully committed to the rôle and holding nothing back.

Intriguingly, Siri’s performance is strongest where many singers’ weaknesses are most apparent, in the much-loved preghiera ‘Casta diva, che inargenti queste sacre antiche piante.’ In the aria’s opening bars, the focus of the soprano’s tone is flawless, utterly untouched by nerves. As the line ascends to the high filigree that troubles many singers of the rôle, slight insecurity intrudes, but Siri’s account of the piece is among the most distinguished on a commercial recording of the opera. She imperiously catapults the recitative ‘Fine al rito; e il sacro bosco sia disgombro dai profani’ into the arena, but the fiorature in the cabaletta ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna del fido amor primiero’ threaten to defeat her. Siri and Ganassi communicate without musical or dramatic barriers in ‘Ah! sì, fa’ core, e abbracciami,’ interweaving their timbres without forcing. In the polacca in the opening sequence of the Act One finale, ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido,’ the pair of top Cs that punctuate the phrases are produced with ease. Norma’s ire boils in Siri’s voicing of ‘Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima crudo e funesto inganno!’ and, even more scorchingly, ‘Vanne, sì: mi lascia indegno, figli oblia, promesse, onore.’

The scene that begins Act Two is one of the formidable tests of a Norma’s histrionic suitability for the rôle, and Siri emerges victorious, phrasing ‘Dormono entrambi’ with tragic grandeur and exclaiming ‘Ah! no! son figli miei!...miei figli!’ as though she wounded herself with the blade meant for her children. Rejoined by Adalgisa, Siri answers Ganassi’s eloquent singing with a beautiful ‘Deh! con te, con te, li prendi,’ and both ladies suffuse their performances of ‘Sì, fino all'ore estreme compagna tua m’avrai’ with effervescent musicality.

As the opera progresses towards its tragic dénouement, Siri rises to Shakespearean heights of expressivity in ‘Ei tornerà... Sì, mia fidanza è posta in Adalgisa,’ undauntedly braving the punishing tessitura. The low center of vocal gravity in ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ is more comfortable for Siri than for many Normas, and she spars with Pelizzari’s Pollione in a battle of wills in which the tenor has no hope of prevailing. She then floats ‘Son io,’ Norma’s fatal mea culpa, with particular radiance. The sublime ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdesti quest’ora orrenda ti manifesti’ and ‘Deh! non volerli vittime del mio fatale errore’ with which Norma takes her leave of the society that condemns her for the crime of following her heart here burn as brightly as the flames meant to consume her. This Norma is no spent woman going gently into that good night of inexorable consequence. Siri will likely build greater assurance in satisfying the musical demands of the rôle with additional opportunities to sing it, but her portrayal of Norma in this production is an auspicious and enjoyable start.

In a time in which singers with the comprehension of bel canto necessary to sing the music as Bellini would have expected it to be sung are in short supply, it is sometimes asked why Norma continues to be performed with regularity. Would it not be preferable, perhaps more respectful to Bellini and Romani, to shelve the score until the emergence of a legitimately important Norma warrants its revival? The dangerous problem with that question is that it ignores the fact that few of history’s significant Normas exhibited their significance in their first attempts at singing the rôle. Her initial reluctance to sing ‘Casta diva’ suggests that not even Giuditta Pasta was a Norma of instantaneous, Athena-like decisiveness. Especially for those who love the opera, a poor Norma is one of opera’s most damnable miseries. This is by no means a poor Norma, but that will not preclude doubts about its value. Its many virtues notwithstanding, this Norma is valuable as a first step along one Norma’s road to potential greatness. With this performance, Maria José Siri is not yet ordained as a high priestess of bel canto, but the altar is within sight.