Norma Concluded.

The recording was made in advance of the Salzburg production. Some years back, Bartoli  took a cue from the pop/rockstar route to stardom: first do your creative preparation, then record a concept album, then tour the show. So the studio work comes first, then the performance experience. I have seen one review (in Opera News) asserting that Bartoli’s vocal performance improved markedly from studio to stage. That’s plausible. Rehearsal, repetition, the dramatic interaction of staged performance—I can well believe that the role settled more into the voice, that the general became more specific. I can believe that the replacement of Sumi Jo with another singer (Rebeka Olvera) helped in the long, crucial Norma/Adalgisa scenes. I can, finally, believe that emotionally committed acting put the vocal track on background for goodly stretches, and made for a more persuasive whole. But I don’t believe that the format and structure, the functional technique, of Bartoli’s voice changed a whit. And they don’t add up to a Norma. By the same token, there can be no objection to this edition of the score. While I doubt that without some orchestral augmentation it would play in big repertory houses, some of its choices surely could, and as a smaller-venue alternative, it adds to our view of the work. But even then, it requires appropriate voices.

In her essay in the recording’s good program booklet, Bartoli argues for the validity of lighter voices in this (and, by implication, similar) works. She presents a well-informed case, and many of her points have merit. They rest on certain assumptions, though. It is true that vocal categories in the first half of the 19th Century were quite different from ours, and much less set. On paper, role assignments of the time often seem confusingly contradictory when imagined through our ears. Thus, Bartoli is correct to observe that two acclaimed Normas, Giuditta Pasta (the “creator”) and Maria Malibran, were called (like Bartoli herself, for reasons that have always been obscure) “mezzo-sopranos,” yet sang parts (e.g., Norma and Amina in La Sonnambula) we think of as belonging to sopranos, and that Giulia Grisi—the original Adalgisa, later famed as Norma—sang, for instance, Norina in Don Pasquale. It is also the case that Domenico Donzelli, the first Pollione, had sung major roles in a number of Rossini’s operas calling for “a very flexible voice skilled in coloratura,” which could not be said of the dramatic tenors who have sung the part over the past century or so. I think we are safe in assuming that singers of the 1830s sounded rather different from singers of recent times, and that some of the difference, in all vocal categories, lay in a more general expertise in the execution of ornamental music. It does not follow, however, that these voices were necessarily smaller and lighter. The thing that people who advance views like Bartoli’s never seem to consider is the possibility that rather than roles like Norma and Adalgisa having been sung by lighter voices, Norina and Amina, et al., may have been sung by stronger ones. As for Donzelli, he had by 1831 shifted toward more dramatic assignments. The writing for Pollione is not demanding in range, and only moderately so with respect to floridity; it bears little resemblance to those earlier Rossini parts, or to Bellini’s own Elvino or Arturo.