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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 12, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 28
Cecilia Bartoli's sensational new Norma
Arts & Entertainment
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Cecilia Bartoli's sensational new Norma

by Rod Parke - SGN Contributing Writer

Because I don't wish to waste your time or mine, the discs I choose to review are either those I fully expect to be excellent or those of truly uncommon interest, such as the one I'm writing about this time.

Cecilia Bartoli has undertaken many a worthy project with generally excellent results that brought us recorded treasures of previously unknown or under-appreciated works. Here she tackles a favorite opera with a radical approach that brings new life and excitement to Bellini's Norma. While I wouldn't want to abandon some favorite performances of the past, I found this recording a rewarding one in almost all regards.

Bartoli's performance itself, however, is the single significant flaw. This artist has earned such great respect that I am a little uncomfortable in saying that perhaps the emperor is wearing no clothes. While Bartoli does in fact sing the softer, more lyrical passages with great artistry and a lovely sound, the more declamatory moments of anger (and there are many in this role) push her instrument into an ugly vibrato that robs each note of musical tone. Her voice simply hasn't the power for such moments. I had hoped that perhaps she could miraculously find a way to express Norma's outbursts without pushing her voice. I also take exception to her pushing the dramatic expression of words to the point of wrecking havoc with the legato lines, for instance in Norma's contemplation of killing her children, surely the most beautiful melody in the entire opera.

But Bartoli is to be credited with many quite successful innovations in this presentation. Actually, we are told that these are not really innovations but rather a return to what per-tained in Bellini's day. While Norma is sung by a mezzo-soprano, a light lyric soprano, Sumi Jo, sings Adalgisa. And Pollione, almost always sung these days by a spinto or dramatic tenor, is John Osborn, a tenor more of Rossini weight. To my surprise, all these changes work just fine. It's a pleasure to hear the tenor lines sung with lyrical ease instead of heroic force. Osborn has enough power to sound commanding without ever straining.

Even more successful is Sumi Jo. She never asks her voice to do more than it can easily achieve, all the while expressing her full range of emotions. Her lovely voice has matured to considerable warmth under supreme control.

Everyone else involved upholds these high standards. Michele Pertusi conveys power and dignity with his focused and attractive bass. And the International Chamber Vocalists offer clean, dynamic choruses. I do find the acoustic of the Swiss church a bit over-resonant in that it draws attention to itself.

Perhaps the overall most interesting and pleasing contribution is that of Giovanni Antonini, who leads the Orchestra La Scintilla with exceptional energy and clarity. He brings a light touch that in no way impedes the larger outbursts. The Orchestra uses period instruments of Bellini's time and offers a richness of detail that makes many sections sound fresh and often more interesting than expected. One might even revise one's opinion of Bellini as an orchestrator!

I am thankful for this fresh look at a great opera. It does not replace some older favorites, but I'm glad to have it next to them on the library shelf.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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