In drawing her ancient/modern comparisons, Bartoli skips from c. 1830 to c. 1950, where she inevitably encounters the Norma of Maria Callas. Fortuitously, Warner Classics has just released a remastering of the Covent Garden performance of Nov. 18, 1952, conducted by Vittorio Gui in what was then the standard performing edition, with all its accretions and redactions. For purposes of the present discussion, it’s especially intriguing for its Norma/Adalgisa pairing. The recent view of this—endorsed, of course, by Bartoli—is that the voice of the young, relatively ingenuous novitiate (but one who, we might note, has broken her own vestalish vows and become the lover of Pollione—perhaps she’s a languorous seductress) should be fresher and more purely lyrical than that of The Druid Priestess, mother of two. I’m not disposed to debate the point, except to say that it depends on the singers. In the ’52 performance, we have Callas at her youthful freest, her uniquely fiery and mystical interpretation already formed, and Ebe Stignani, a quarter-century into a dominant career then nearing its end. The revelation of this performance for me is Stignani, whose postwar studio recordings (of which her Adalgisa on the 1954 Norma with Callas is probably the best) sound like a once-great dramatic mezzo in faded condition. She had recorded a fine Adalgisa with the ferocious Gina Cigna, but that was sixteen years earlier, and I was unprepared for the pealing freshness and spontaneous release of her singing here. In fact, she and Callas offer exactly the timbral and expressive relationship advocated by Bartoli and her colleagues. Callas, the soprano, has more bite, more complexity, more authority of manner. Stignani, the mezzo, has more roundness, more directness, simplicity, and openness of address. In many passages, you will be certain of which voice is the soprano and which the mezzo only if you are familiar with the score (even in mid-20th Century, “mezzo” did not always mean “dark,” and Stignani’s vowel formation had always been basically chiaro and aperto). So it’s just as our revisionists would want it, but rendered to us with—sorry—two great, house-filling voices. They make Norma . . . I search for the word . . . relevant.
Bartoli’s 1830/1950 take-it-or-leave-it choice skips by some 120 years of operatic history, of which about 50 (to say nothing of the 77 since) have left an audible trail in the form of recordings. In search of kinds of singing different from ours, yet strong, it might be worth following that trail back, past the Norma/Adalgisa duos of Caballe/Cossotto, Sutherland/Horne, Callas/Barbieri or Simionato, Milanov/Castagna, Cigna/Castagna or Stignani, Ponselle/Telva, and others, to some of the earliest exemplars of whom we have at least fragmentary evidence. I’ll mention four who sang dramatic repertoire and recorded bits of Norma: Lilli (not Lotte) Lehmann, Teresa Arkel, Giannina Russ, and Ester Mazzoleni. These singers were born between 1848 and 1884, and made their debuts from 1865 (or -7, depending on source) to 1904. The recordings in question are all pre-WW1 acousticals. We are hearing artists surely changed from those of the 1830s by the developments of the intervening years, but also still influenced by the styles and techniques of predecessors whose careers reached back at least a generation. (I have advisedly left aside Eugenia Burzio, a star who had success as Norma at La Scala in 1911, but was more veristically inclined.)