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Monday, July 29, 2013

Recordings Review: Moon Child

Cecilia Bartoli sings Norma.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The right hand of doom: Cecilia Bartoli as Norma.
Photo by Uli Weber © 2013 Decca Classics/UMG.
When an opera singer reaches a certain level of success, they are free to take on "dream" projects, singing roles that are perceived as being outside their regular repertory. Luciano Pavarotti dabbled in popular Italian song and made records with U2. Plácido Domingo is currently steeping himself in Verdi's baritone roles, and has even preserved his Simon Boccanegra for posterity. Last year, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli unveiled her interpretation of Bellini's Norma a work associated in the 20th century with superstar singers of the soprano register.


Ms. Bartoli's approach to Norma (as explained in her voluminous essay that accompanies this new two-disc Decca recording) is rooted in the idea that orchestras, tone, and timbre became higher in the 20th century, aided by modern instrumentation, bigger opera houses and concert halls, and changing tastes in the sound of the female voice. She points out that by today's standards, Maria Malibran (the singer who originated the role in 1831) was a mezzo-soprano. Thus, she argues, interpretation of Bellini's most famous role should be open to singers of a lower register.

The ultimate proof of any musicological argument of this nature is in the recording. And yes, this set an invaluable listen for the serious bel canto fan. Ms. Bartoli is never less than interesting, using her lower voice to lend authority to the key phrases of "Casta diva." It is refreshing to hear this famous cavatina as an invocation with meaning and religious fervor--not just an exercise in pretty, sky-scraping notes. The cabaletta that follows is fierce and intense, as Ms. Bartoli reminds the listener that  Norma is at heart a martial opera.

Throughout the later pages of the work, Ms. Bartoli's performance shows understanding of the emotional complexities and Bellini's very exposed vocal writing. She brings the story's central crisis right to the surface, emphasizing the passion and anger at her betrayal by her acolyte Adalgisa and Pollione, the feckless Roman general caught between both women. She adds shades of hollowness and despair to the key Act II scene when Norma considers murdering her two children. This resignation also pervades the finale, helped by the dark colors in her voice.


In keeping with the trend of casting Norma as a soprano, most opera houses choose mezzos to sing the key role of Adalgisa for the sake of vocal contrast. However, the role was originally intended for the soprano voice. Here, the acolyte is played by Sumi Jo, herself a past paragon of high-lying coloratura. Ms. Bartoli and Ms. Jo make a formidable team in their duets and trios, navigating the treacherous downward steps of Bellini's celebrated coloratura, weaving their voices together and taking their shared passages in perfect sync.

Their Pollione is tenor John Osborn, whose sometimes blustery tenor soars when enters the upper register. He shows stamina and agility, injecting the Roman general with a sense of clueless virility in his Act I duet with Adalgisa and deep, almost immediate regret when confronted by Norma. The big trio that ends the first act is thrilling stuff. Mr. Osborn is one of the more promising examples of the current crop of bel canto tenors and it is good to hear his voice getting committed to record. The same may be said for bass Michele Pertusi, who sings a dark-tinted sturdy Oroveso.

A few years ago, Ms. Bartoli endured a firestorm of criticism when she started singing "Casta diva" in concert. For this project, she came armed with the new critical edition of the score, prepared by musicologists Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi in conjunction with conductor Giovanni Antonini.  On this recording, Mr. Antonini leads the Orchestra La Scintilla (a Zurich-based ensemble devoted to historically informed performance) with fire and drive, summoning the rough energy of the big climaxes and always holding back his orchestra to the all-important role of supporting the vocal line.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.