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.
Norma is considered the pinnacle of bel canto, but at the same time, this is a tremendous musical drama that leaves Verdi’s early works quite behind and carries with it the promise of a ‘Tristan’. And although it is a love story and both protagonists die a kind of ‘Liebestod’ at the end, love is not the heroine’s only motivation. She is also a mother, a priestess, a patriot, a daughter and a friend, and to be able to express all these aspects of human feelings, you need to be more than a ‘singer’.
The role of Norma was created by Giuditta Pasta, originally a mezzo, who had trained her voice upwards. Pasta was an exceptionally intelligent singer with a great stage personality and a great voice range but her technique was not optimal, which caused her voice to deteriorate very early in her career. Pauline Viardot (one of the most famous mezzos of her time) once said about Pasta: “She looks like ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci – a ruin of a painting, but it is still the greatest painting in the world”.
The first Adalgisa was sung by Giulia Grisi, a soprano who also created the roles of Elvira (I Puritani) and Giulia (I Capuletti e i Montecchi), and who would later become a great Norma herself.
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’:
One thinks Norma, one says Callas. Rightly so, because like no other La Divina has left her mark on this role. Between 1950 and 1964, she was undeniably the best Norma. Perhaps she was the best Norma ever. She sang the role more than 90 times and recorded it twice in the studio, both times under Tulio Serafin.
The first dates from 1954 (Warner Classics 0825646341115). Callas was then at her best vocally, yet this recording does not really captivate me. I find Serafin’s accompaniment downright boring, Filippeschi, despite his beautiful voice, is no Pollione of weight, and Stignani simply sounds (too) old. I also have some comments on Callas’ acting. Her ‘Casta Diva’ seems much more a love aria than an ode to the moon goddess, which it actually should be. But her singing is phenomenally beautiful, with wonderful heights and good trills.
In the autumn of 1960, Callas insisted on recording the opera again. It is claimed that she wanted to make her comeback with it (due to all sorts of scandals, Callas had not sung for nine months). This is possibly true, but it is also very likely that her views on the role had changed so much that she wanted to record it again.
Anyway it is fortunate that she did, because her second ‘official’ Norma (Warner Classics 0825646340842) is in all respects superior to the first. Franco Corelli is probably the best Pollione ever: a real warlord with a very masculine voice. Certain of himself and his appearance, resolute, macho, but also loving and very, very sensual and sexy. No wonder, then, that a young priestess would fall for him. And no wonder that a woman like Norma – strong, beautiful and powerful – continues to love him, despite his betrayal.
Adalgisa is sung by a young Christa Ludwig. Not really Italian, also (for me) a bit too dark in timbre, but with so much empathy that it doesn’t really matter. Callas herself is past her vocal peak and here and there she lets out a painful note, but as an actress she is absolutely unequalled. Here, too, she occasionally wants to “make believe” (the scene with her children, for example), but her intense involvement, her complete understanding and surrender – it is unique. Serafin, too, is clearly much more inspired, although I occasionally have trouble with his tempi.
Next to these two studio- recordings there are half a dozen radio- and pirate-recordings made from her live- performances. They are from London, Milan and Rome. One of them I will discuss here, because for me, this is the greatest Norma of them all! It is a registration of a performance on 29 june 1955 in Rome (amongst others on Opera d’Oro 7003).
Callas, in wonderful voice, never misses a (top) note, nor a gasp or a nuance. From pianissisimo to forte and back again, from dark to light and open, from glissando to portamento she goes on and on and all this with a great feeling for style and a deep understanding of the text. This is dramatic Belcanto singing pur sang; this is what Bellini must have had in mind.
Mario del Monaco sings a dream of a Pollione. sometimes a bit loud, but he is allowed, because he is a warrior after all. In ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdisti’ he is audibly moved and falling in love again. Their voices melt together in the ultimate love duet which can only lead unto death.
Maria Callas and Mario del Monaco in ‘Qual cor tradisti’:
Serafin conducts it all with feeling for both drama and lyricism and if Stignani still does not convince me, it is only because I want to hear a soprano in that role.