In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, Norma was only rarely performed. Opera history mentions only two memorable performances: in 1926 at the Metropolitan Opera (with Rosa Ponselle and Lauri-Volpi) and in 1936 at La Scala, with Gina Cigna.
In 1937, the very first (almost) complete recording of “Norma” was made: with Gina Cigna, Ebe Stignani and Giovanni Brevario, conducted by Vittorio Gui (various labels). the sound is still quite good, although obviously not optimal.
In the opera world there is a general opinion that most (Bel canto) singers before Callas were light, like canaries. This is not true. Just listen to Cigna’s full, dark timbre and to her sense of drama.
Cigna approaches the role from the verist tradition and plays it heavily. There are no coloraturas, but her technique is phenomenal and her top notes firm and pure. However, she is not a real actress, thus her interpretation is far behind that of Callas (among others).
Adalgisa is sung here by the young Ebe Stignani: a beautiful, warm mezzo, much more convincing here than in all her later recordings.
Giovanni Breviario is an inferior Pollione, but orchestrally this recording is, together with those of Serafin (Rome 1955) and Muti (Turin 1974), one of the three finest Normas. Partly because of this (and the particularly moving sung ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’) it is well worth listening to.
Gina Cigna and Giovanni Breviario in ‘Deh! non volerli vittime’: