Between Gina Cigna and Renata Scotto, forty years of Norma in a mini-discography. Part 2
It is perhaps superfluous, but I have to get it off my chest: there is no such thing as objective music criticism. Of course there are criteria, but it is not science: after all, you listen to music not only with your ears, but also with your soul and your heart, and you cannot switch them off. Therefore, do not consider my mini discography as an absolute truth and, as far as possible, listen and judge for yourself.
Joan Sutherland, like Callas recorded Norma twice (officially). Her first recording from 1965 (Decca 4704132) caused a real sensation. It was the very first recording of Bellini’s complete music, without any cut. Moreover, it was the first recording in the original key (Bellini composed his opera in G, but before the premiere he changed it to F).
In those days, Sutherland was considered the belcanto specialist par excellence. Her voice knew no limits and seemed to be made of elastic. High, higher, highest, and with coloraturas that sound almost inhumanly perfect.
Adalgisa was sung by Marilyn Horne, Sutherland’s alter ego in the mezzo voice. The result is dazzling, but it lacks the necessary drama, all the more so because John Alexander (Pollione) has a beautiful but insipid voice.
The orchestral playing is excellent, however, and if you like pure singing, high notes and and if you like pure singing, high notes and coloratura, this recording is the best choice.
Twenty years later, Sutherland recorded the role again, this time with Montserrat Caballé (Adalgisa) and Luciano Pavarotti (Pollione). Let’s call it a mistake, although Caballé’s Adalgisa is at least interesting. It’s a pity it wasn’t thought of sooner.
Caballé is a kind of cross between Callas and Sutherland: wonderful top notes, incredibly beautiful legato arches, perfect trills, and moreover a pianissimo that none of her colleagues could match. She was a much better actress than Sutherland, moreover she had great charisma. She never went to extremes like Callas or (later) Scotto, but her performances were always very convincing. In 1973 she recorded the role for RCA and the result was very decent (GD 86502). Her Pollione, a very young Plácido Domingo, was vocally crystal clear and sounded like a bell. However, he lacked dominance, making him sound far too young for the role.
Fiorenza Cossotto in her role of Adalgisa looked more like Azucena than a young girl, but her singing as such was flawless. Unfortunately, the orchestra sounds uninspired and hurried, which must surely be blamed on the conductor, Carlo Felice Cillario.
In 1974 she sang Norma in the Roman amphitheatre in Orange (Provence). It was a very windy evening, and everything blew and moved: her hair, veils and dresses. A fantastic sensation, which added an extra dimension to the already great performance. It was filmed by French television (what luck!), and has now appeared on DVD (VAIV 4229).
Caballé sings ‘Casta Diva’:
Caballé was in superb voice, very lyrical in ‘Casta Diva’, dramatic in ‘Dormono etrambi’ and moving in ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’. Together with Josephine Veasey, she sang perhaps the most convincing ‘Mira , o Norma’ – of all, at least in a complete recording of the opera. As two feminists avant la lettre, they renounce men and transform from rivals into bosom buddies.
Jon Vickers (Pollione) was never my cup of tea, but Veasey is a fantastic (also optically) Adalgisa and Patané conducts with passion. Of all the recordings on DVD (and there are not many), this is definitely the best.
Scotto sang her first Norma in 1974, in Turin. To my knowledge, there is no recording of it, at least not of the complete opera.
Casta Diva’ from Turin:
A pirate did record the 1978 performance in Florence (Legato LCD 203-2). It should have been an ideal Norma, but unfortunately the performance was marred by a no more than adequate Ermanne Mauro as Pollione.
Margherita Rinaldi (finally a soprano again) sounds young as Adalgisa and Scotto is, according to many critics, the first Norma, after Callas, who seems to know what it’s all about. Orchestrally, this recording belongs to my top three, but the sound is unfortunately not really great.
Scotto in ‘Dormono entrambi’ in 1978:
In 1980 Scotto recorded the opera in the studio (Sony SM2K 35902), conducted by James Levine. I cannot find much negative to say about her performance, although the ‘steel’ in her voice is sometimes particularly painful. The Adalgisa (incredibly beautiful Tatiana Troyanos) is also absolutely top-notch. But Giuseppe Giacomini (Pollione) is not great at all and Levine conducts far too heavily and overdramatically.