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.