Mariella Devia’s Norma

April 18, 2013

ItalyItaly Bellini, Norma: Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale, Bologna. Conductor, Michele Mariotti Bologna Teatro Comunale. 16.04.2013 (JB)

Cast:
Norma, Mariella Devia
Pollione, Aquiles Machado
Adalgisa, Carmela Remigio
Oroveso, Sergey Artamonov

Production:
Chorus Master, Andrea Faidutti.
Stage Director, Federico Tiezzi.
Sets, Pier Paolo Bisleri.
Sets and Painted Curtains, Mario Schifano.
Costumes, Giovanna Buzzi.
Lighting, Gianni Pollini

Norma has demolished more sopranos than it has created. No wonder the role strikes terror in the heart of all the ladies who attempt it. Yet terror must have been the last thing on Bellini’s mind when he wrote it. The Druid Priestess is required to exude the peace which passeth understanding. While still being the unflinching High Priestess. And there’s the rub. If the one quality doesn’t bring you down, the other will. It is not a simple case of alternating between the dramatic and the eternal calm. The singer is called upon to express both simultaneously. Could there be any request more unreasonable than that?

Such a complex alchemy of sentiment can only possibly be arrived at through poetics. Applied poetics. But not too applied. There are moments when the singer has to let the music carry her. Moments when she must carry it. It requires split-second judgement to discern and deliver herself of one and the other. In either direction you offer your voice to the gods. Failure to do so carries the death penalty. Success puts you in a unique class.

***

I made these notes in the train from Rome to Bologna, where I was to hear Mariella Devia sing her first Norma. If you have read this far, you are probably feeling sorry for Devia. You needn’t. Hers is not the perfect Norma –whose is? But it is certainly a Norma to be reckoned with.

I followed Devia’s career in the eighties when she was studying with Rodolfo Celletti (1917 -2004), who every summer presented his star pupils at the Valle D’Itria Festival in Martina Franca, (Year after year, he asked me to find a Cambridge students chorus who could move well, sing well and cost little. I duly did.) Martine Dupuy was another Celletti pupil at this time. And even Grace Bumbry appeared one summer, and sang Norma! But I digress.

Ms Devia then had a bust-up with Celletti and accused him of having misguided her voice. Grossly unfair of her, we all thought at the time. She then began studying with her husband, who was a trumpet player. She claimed that this did wonders for her voice. A decade or so ago, the trumpet player died. The singer was grief-stricken and even interrupted her career. Briefly, it would turn out.

Her voice today is darker and heavier than in the eighties. She delivered herself of the opening recitative with the thrilling authority of Callas. And singing doesn’t come any more authoritative than that. But would she give us the beauty of tone she always had, in Casts Diva? Yes and no. She was taking no risks. She was not floating the top notes in a rich pianissimo (the Caballé speciality). They were mezzo-forte. But reassuringly, perfectly placed. A standing ovation followed. That seemed to give her confidence, and from this point forward, she did indeed take risks. She let us hear that she still has the quiet, controlled, top register.

They say that grief can inform our lives to the point of enriching it. Julian Barnes has just published a memoir on his heart-wrenching grief on the loss of his wife. It hurts just as much as it ought to hurt, he writes repeatedly. Certainly the Devia Norma is shot through with grief. It’s there, even in scenes where you mightn’t expect it. And this is probably her most striking single contribution to the role. In it, she outstrips Callas. And goodness knows, the great Maria had enough grief in her lifetime to last into eternity.

***

This is an opera where all the other roles pale into insignificance. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to report on some strong support.

Aquiles Machado made a good stab at the role of Pollione. That was the strength and the weakness of his performance. The stabbing was not without its dramatic effects, through it did sometimes throw the intonation haywire. But as he warmed into the show he showed that he could also stroke the notes with something like affection. Even as early as the duet with Adalgisa he had shifted into a more accommodating gear of delivery.

To my ear, Carmela Remigio doesn’t have an “important” enough voice for Adalgisa. And that is a term I am always reluctant to use. All her notes are in the right place, at the right time and with the right phrasing and vocal colours. Yet somehow she fails to get into the soul of the role. But then, she was partnering Devia, whose soulful involvement turned out to be her speciality. And who could reasonably be expected to meet that particular challenge?

Sergey Artamonov is a fine, firm-voiced Oroveso, heard to his best advantage in the second act aria which Wagner cheekily wrote and inserted into Bellini’s score, and which Bologna thoughtfully handed to the bass.

Michele Mariotti is the Principal Conductor of the Bologna Opera Orchestra, and his players always respond well to his baton. He takes delight in every detail. And so do we. He made no attempt to disguise the banality of the village band march which plays such a key part in the overture. He rejoices in its simplicity. So do the players. There was some wonderfully cheeky echoing of trumpets and drums here. Devia had obviously persuaded him of her grief-stricken approach. His pacing is almost always perfect. I would only have liked a little more movement in the final trio of the first act. But I well understand why he slowed the tempo here. Others in the audience remained more appreciative of this.

Federico Tiezzi’s staging with Pier Paolo Bisleri’s sets and Giovanna Buzzi’s predominantly white costumes, managed to be minimalist, unfussy and fantastical (especially some of the drop curtains) all at the same time. Just like Bellini, in fact.

Jack Buckley

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