If your ear isn’t yet acclimated to early recordings, you will probably have difficulty hearing these voices as dramatic sopranos, especially inasmuch as Lehmann, for instance, also sang and recorded arias from such roles as Constanze and Philine, and Russ left us pristine accountings of duets from Rigoletto with the superb baritone Antonio Magini-Coletti. It was for Lehmann, the eldest of them, that the Metropolitan first mounted Norma, first in a single benefit performance, then, in 1891, in staged production. Her Adalgisa, interestingly, was Maria Pettigiani, whose other roles that season were Philine, Marguerite (Les Huguenots), and Inez (L’Africaine)—and so, we would judge, a lyric-coloratura soprano. What you will hear in Lehmann’s “Casta diva” and, in fact, in all the recordings of these singers, is firm, even, balanced tone throughout the range (in Mazzoleni’s case beset by a taut vibrato, doubtless more intrusive on these recordings than in live performance); a basically bright timbre with exceptionally clear, uncovered vowels; an etched delineation of the line; and a lightness and alacrity of handling that includes perfect runs and trills. Even allowing for the limitations of acoustical recording, they certainly don’t sound like any of the singers listed above (though Ponselle retained many of their attributes), and will sound like unlikely Normas to most modern ears. But consider: the greatest triumphs of Lehmann’s mature prime at Bayreuth, the Met, Covent Garden, and elsewhere, were as Isolde and Brünnhilde. Arkel also sang Wagner, and other dramatic soprano roles, in leading Italian and South American houses. Mazzoleni and Russ were not Wagnerians, but they took on the major dramatic parts of Verdi and the verist composers.
Singing that repertoire in those places, with the orchestras and conductors of the time, certainly required voices of strength and penetration. All four of these women had reputations as singers of power; Lehmann was the reigning prima donna assoluta of several decades. But the power source was not quite the same as that of the mid-20th-Century sopranos Bartoli is shadow-boxing with. For a clue to it, simply listen to the onsets of three of these singers (Mazzoleni seems not to have recorded the aria) as they begin the “Casta diva.” It’s an A-natural, thus in the troublesome first segment above the passaggio, and sung piano. (I am assuming the key of F, and that the recordings are accurately pitched.) All are clear of tone and vowel, and free of artifacts. But if you listen particularly to Arkel and Russ, you will hear an “a” like none on recent offer, open to the verge of “a” as in “sat,” yet not spread, not strained, not threatening a mixed chest tone. Its position in the throat, its registral balance, and its poise on the support system are what make it soft yet firm and penetrating, and lead these voices on to the kind of limber sustainment I noted above. It’s a lost technique.
And the other roles? We don’t get a lot of Adalgisa from these early days. Her entrance monologue, “Sgombra è la sacra scelta,” serves its function admirably but is not a showpiece, and the rest of the role is in duo or trio exchanges. If early recordings survive of soprano Adalgisas like Pettigiani, I don’t know of them, and evidence of mezzo-sopranos or contraltos in this music is also thin on the ground. There is, though, a splendid 1907 voicing of “Sgombra” by Armida Parsi-Pettinella. She was categorized as a contralto, but of a typically open, bright Italian variety, with a technical structure similar to those of the sopranos cited above, posed on a vibrant chest register. She sings the piece boldly, the recitative strongly declaimed. Perhaps the usual partners of Russ, Mazzoleni, and Arkel sang something like her. Or, possibly, they were closer to Virginia Guerrini, who is paired with Russ in the first of the great Norma/Adalgisa duets, “Sola, furtiva al tempio.” Here’s a true, deep contralto (the number is sung a full step below standard score pitch), with a baritonal bottom register she exploits with low variants, yet binds into a blended line that tunes beautifully against Russ in the duet phrases. Of girlish vulnerability there is none, but we should remember that audiences of the time did not find any contradiction between deep, powerful female utterance (even of the more matronly Northern Contralto sort) and youthfulness or sexiness. One would think that might be a modern view. Of Pollione I have tracked virtually nothing. Giovanni Zenatello’s rejoinders to Mazzoleni’s’ “In mia man” remind us of one exciting casting possibility, but if we want something heroic that can assuredly embrace Bartoli’s desiderata of flexibility and coloratura capacity (that would be wondrous to hear), we can always turn to Hermann Jadlowker (the original Ariadne Bacchus—but give ear to his “Ecco ridente“), or to Léonce-Antoine Escalaïs (try him in the Le Prophète excerpts).
None of us know, really, how the great singers of 1831 sounded, or what feats they performed. We can only infer. Perhaps we would not have liked them, though I doubt that operatic aesthetics have changed quite that much. But I will offer you extremely favorable odds that when we all reach that great opera house in the sky, and can to our hearts’ content listen to Pasta, Grisi, Malibran, and Donzelli, they won’t sound much like Bartoli, Jo, and Osborn.
As to updatings of the kind undertaken by the Salzburg production, I might first note that this one represents a special breed, since it seeks on one hand to take the ear back to a reconstructed “Original Intent” environment—to put it “in period” with the time of composition (not of the action)—while on the other to bring the eye into a recognizably modern stage world. This reverses the traditional relationship between musical and theatrical styles, whereby the visual elements are directed toward taking us back into the historical world of the given work, while everything for the ear incorporates the generation-to-generation changes in vocal skills and styles, the shifts in musical interpretive practice, the composition of the orchestra, and so on.