Monthly Archives: November 2017

Norma Concluded.

Cecilia Bartoli is a woman of parts. Having won a place with her vocal and musical gifts, and having sagaciously assessed herself and the world she finds herself in, she has fused those gifts with a sympathy for pre-Romantic and early Romantic styles, a passion for research worthy of an obsessed scholar, and the entrepreneurial  zeal of a brilliant startup engineer to produce a series of well-turned-out themed Projects, recorded and live. It’s been an ingeniously managed career, and has won her through to the artistic leadership of an important operatic enterprise, the Salzburg Whitsun Festival—a feat to be applauded on behalf of both women and singers.

It was at Salzburg Whitsun that the production of Norma so favorably recalled when contrasted with the Met’s by both Alex Ross and Anthony Tommasini (see the post of Nov. 10), and with Bartoli in the titular role, was inaugurated. I’ve read about this production, seen it described and evaluated—the latter, with minor reservations, quite favorably. Bartoli’s performance is universally praised for its intensity, and in the little snippets viewable online, she certainly looks involved. I can’t sensibly take issue with a production I didn’t see, but in search of what Ross and Tommasini find pertinent in it, I can enter a thought or two about such updatings in general. I can also give you some reactions to the recording of Norma by Bartoli and, with one principal exception, the same forces involved with her at Salzburg. To the recording first, since—as I’ve indicated—aesthetically wonderful, dramatically engaged singing and playing are what’s most likely to make any opera relevant for me. As with all of Bartoli’s projects, musicological restoration is seen as crucial. Keys, tempi, orchestration (including the use of period instruments), phrasings and articulations—all the musical elements—are subject to research in quest of definitive, true-to-period authenticity. Then, the resulting edition is tightly honored in performance.

I won’t attempt to account for all the consequent changes made in this case. Some are noted in the annotations that accompany the recording. They are significant, but it is still performance itself that is determinative. And if Rizzi and the Met orchestra had played with half the incisiveness of attack, sharpness of accent, gestural shape, and alertness to articulations that Giovanni Antonini secures from the Orchestra La Scintilla of Zürich, in any edition of the score, things would have been livelier on Oct. 3. Unfortunately, once the sinfonia is past, here come the singers. Almost all the positive effect of the recording rests with the orchestra, and with the exaggerated “presence” of modern studio technology. Bartoli has all the notes in good intonation, plenty of rhythmic energy, and keen inflectional instincts in her native language. Those are not small things. But from “Sediziose voci” through to the end, her voice jiggles and quivers like Jello in an earthquake under any pressure at all, especially in midrange. Her passagework is accurate, but never legato, the notes defined by the same quasi-marcato little throat actions Giulietta Simionato (with a far more potent instrument) used under similar musical circumstances. The interpretive intensity is so generalized that it adds up to a tiresome hypernervosity. “Casta diva” (in G, but in lowered tuning) is surmounted via odd vowel mutations and preparations (she sang it better on an earlier recording). Some of the quieter passages tell, and moments like “Qual cor tradisti” or “Deh! non volerli vittime” would have their intended emotional effect if underpinned by firmer tone and not surrounded by so much excitability. I find her hard listening. Of the Adalgisa and Pollione, let us stipulate that they are high-level professionals and musically on point. Sumi Jo owns a sweet lyric soprano, and can sing a placid line nicely. There is no  tension, good or bad, anywhere in her voice, and so no dramatic properties of the sort that even small, light instruments can have. Her emotional engagement is indicated by moments of breathy onset. John Osborn, whom we heard here last season in Guillaume Tell, is, as the boldly adventurous Roman proconsul of Gaul, a sort of excellent Nanki-Poo with acuti; he executes with some dash. Michele Pertusi, the Oroveso, wins the Basic Qualification medal simply by virtue of being a capable Italian bass.

What Would Make Norma “Relevant”?

Although the current Metropolitan Opera production of Bellini’s Norma is a new one and had been selected as the season’s opener, the performance I saw (on October 3) was unremarkable, and I had no plans to write about it until oddly parallel remarks in a couple of local reviews, bouncing back and forth like echoes off our urban canyon walls, stirred thoughts about whether the work is any longer of use, and if so on what terms. The reviews were in two of the journals I see with greatest regularity, the New York Times and the New Yorker. The latter publication, once an indispensable source for devotees of classical music, has for all practical purposes withdrawn from critical coverage of anything involving any of its forms—the orchestral, chamber, and recital varieties; opera—except for the widely spaced and idiosyncratic commentaries of its nominal music critic, Alex Ross. Ballet has suffered similar diminution. But this occasion, paired with the New York Philharmonic’s first full first concert under its new music director, Jaap van Sweden, drew Ross back to the big old halls and the mainstream beat.

Neither Ross nor the Times‘ reviewer, Anthony Tommasini, actually use the word “relevant” this time around. But relevancy, in a very particular meaning, is what they (and many others) are looking for in this (and many other) cases. And they are instructing us to look for it, too. According to my trusty Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary, “relevant” means “relating to the matter in hand,” and by way of sampling usage Skeats cites a letter of Charles 1’s: “to make our probations and arguments relevant.” But then the natural question is, what is the “matter in hand”? And, following—whose hand? Because there’s no such thing as universal relevancy. People decide for themselves what’s relevant to them. In this instance, Ross avoids “relevant,” and substitutes “pertinent.” All right, “pertinent.” Skeats: “relating or belonging to.” To what? To whom?

In his lead paragraph, Tommasini finds Norma “rich in themes that resonate in today’s political and social climate.”  (My italics.) Later, he chides the production’s director, David McVicar, for “not having a more resonant concept to begin with,” and offers as comparison the Salzburg production of a few years back, updated to the France of WW11 and starring Cecilia Bartoli. Ross, after complaining that choosing Norma to open the Met’s season was implicitly “reactionary” and that the company persists in putting on “canonical pieces by white males” (alternate suggestions, please?) while “the nation contends with its racist and misogynist demons,” deplores the production’s “mildly sexed-up traditionalism” and its “mist of Gothic-Romantic cliché.” He, too (and this is where the parallels, otherwise fairly general and expectable, become specific), recalls the Salzburg/Bartoli Occupation scenario, as well as another set in an Amish community. The Salzburg Norma (staged in the Haus für Mozart  in 2013, during the Whitsun Festival), was very much a reformist one, musicologically speaking. That, and Bartoli’s performance, was what was widely celebrated about it, and one might think that those elements are what music critics would find relevant or pertinent. But it is the production itself, with the Druids transformed into Resistance fighters, that both use to chastise McVicar’s sociopolitical backwardness. I’ll give consideration to that below. First, some attention to the Met’s effort, and to the nature of the piece itself.