Desperately Seeking Norma at Caracalla

ItalyItaly Bellini, NormaChorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera, Baths of Caracalla, Rome, 21.07.2012 (JB)


Pollione:  Fabio Sartori
Oroveso:  Riccardo Zanellato
Norma:  Julianna Di Giacomo
Adalgisa:  Carmela Remigio


Gabriele Ferro: conductor
Roberto Gabbiani: chorus master
Andrea De Rosa, with his sets aided by Carlo Savi
Matthew Spender (sculptures)
Alessandro Ciammarughi (costumes)


If ever there was an opera where the protagonist is the opera, it is Norma. Pollione and Adalgisa get a look-in but fade into insignificance compared with the musical, expressive and dramatic demands made on Norma. She comes onto the stage in her first scene and embarks from cold into the warmest, most exacting and beautiful melodic invention in operatic repertory. Chopin couldn’t help being haunted by her in pretty well every Nocturne he wrote.  And as a pianist he didn’t need to worry about breathing. Bellini seems to have momentarily forgotten, in his supreme creation, that singers need to breath. There is no evident place for them to do this in the manuscript. The singer has to sneak breath in through the back door, so to speak. This can be done with a virtuoso technique, providing the singer can bedazzle the audience with such sheer beauty of sound that no one notices that the back door has been opened and shut. Montserrat Caballé did just that.

When she stepped onto the stage of the Naples San Carlo on 11 May 1973 and appeared to sing Casta Diva in a single breath of seductive tones, the Neapolitan audience rose to its feet in a stampede of applause and shrieks of Biss! Biss! (encore!  encore!), which must have lasted a full five minutes. The lady stood as immobile as a Druid Priestess. When Rescigno tried to restart the opera, they were having none of that: their thunderous applause further increased to drown out his intentions. The Priestess then held up her right hand like a traffic policeman and addressed the mob. She explained that she couldn’t sing an encore as she had to sing the rest of the opera. They instantly became the Priestess’s congregation, as silent as lambs. She waved to Rescigno to continue. And so went forward the most extraordinary expressive opera performance I have ever attended.

I go along with whoever said that ninety-eight percent of the world’s sopranos should leave Norma well alone. It could be instructive to apply my wine experience test to Norma performances. The wine easily falls into one of five (rising) categories: (1) Undrinkable, (2) Drinkable, (3) Pleasurable, (4) Very good, (5) Superb. Caballé is clearly in category (5), though even she, when I heard her a decade later at La Scala, had moved down to (4) with only “visits” into (5). Maria Callas, who sang the role more than any other, cannot stand alongside Caballé in Casta Diva, but as the opera’s drama increases, so does Callas’s delivery, becoming superior to Caballé’s, making Callas a (5) with a (4) start.

On 8 March 1987, Ghena Dimitrova, also at the San Carlo, sang her first and last Norma.  Expectations were high; after all, here was someone who had taught us how the roles of Lady Macbeth, Turandot and La Gioconda should be sung. I never knew Dimitrova, but word had it that she was intelligent; certainly, this shone through all her singing. Yet here she was making a bid to be among the world’s 2% who should attempt Norma. We half expected her to cancel on the day of the performance. She was understandably nervous. And you don’t give of your best when you’re nervous. Just ahead of the performance, there was an announcement, beginning, Dimitrova………Our hearts sank. But the announcement went on to say that although she was experiencing vocal difficulties (God help us! Who wouldn’t?) she had agreed to sing. In other words, lower your expectations, boys and girls.

A friend of mine says she only buys fruit when it is something special; she adds that when it isn’t, it should be left on the stall to rot. So it is with Norma; either it is something special or should be left to rot. By this measure, it is a pleasure to report that Ghena Dimitrova is that something special; firmly in category (4) with forays into (5). The audience left her in no doubt with their rapturous reception of Casta Diva, and like Callas, she gained as the dramatic tension increased. Of course, she had not managed the unprecedented audience involvement which Caballé brought about. But that is an unfair comparison. The opera house made a recording –not issued outside the theatre – but important, for collectors to eventually seek out. She never sang the role again.


Saturday 21 July 2012 was one of those heavy, sultry Rome days, with the hot wind – the sirocco – from Africa, filling the air with moisture and building up to thunderstorms, expected on Monday and Tuesday. The rain, if and when it comes (there is often thunder with only a few drops) comes as sand, which the evil sirocco picks up as it crosses the Sahara desert, then deposits over outdoor furniture and cars. But Jupiter is sometimes merciful and gives us a break from sirocco and the Roman builders knew the mighty god’s winds and built the Baths of Caracalla facing where the West Wind –the Pontino- brings ventilation to the city. As though on cue, as Norma began, we felt the first cooling wafts of the Pontino. Jupiter we worship you! But by the time I got home after midnight, the air was as heavy as lead and I could not have slept without the air-conditioning.

So was the scene set for the Rome Opera’s Norma at Caracalla, making use of Matthew Spender’s sculptures, elegant and dignified and speaking with the same understated power of Henry Moore and especially apt in the backdrop of the Baths’ own ancient stones. My own feeling was that the stage directors, Andrea De Rosa and Carlo Savi could have made better use of Spender’s work; their lighting was amateurish and often irrelevant to Felice Romani’s libretto, sometimes –as in the final funeral pyre- being unintentionally comic.

Rome had been waiting with baited breath for the young American soprano, Julianna Di Giacomo to make her debut as Norma. Expectations were high. Sadly, I have to report that Ms Di Giacomo belongs to the 98% of the world’s sopranos who should avoid this role. (By the way, I am longing for some opera management to persuade Mariella Devia to attempt this role.) Throughout the evening, she remained –almost determinedly- in category (1) –undrinkable / unacceptable / as far from the role as you can get.  I tried in every scene to hear if she did anything that would move her into category (2) acceptable or even (3) something which would give pleasure. But worse, she gave no indication of understanding the steep mountain of problems she had taken on, let alone solving them.

She had serious problems – but really serious – problems of intonation, beginning Casta Diva at least a semitone flat. She was not singing a transposed version (not unusual with this demanding aria) and unable to cope with its challenges to her breathing technique, she was soon gasping for breath. The fioratura was either skipped over or badly mauled. I thought I heard some attractive dark vocal colours in her lower register in the recitative, but when such colours would have later been useful later on, they were not heard.

Fabio Sartori (Pollione) sounded routine, and of course, anything routine has no place in Bellini’s weaving of magic melodies. His cavatina in the opening scene – Meco al l’altar di Venire – one of the most enchanting set pieces in the opera, had about as much charm as the Second World War. Sartori’s voice is not only reedy, but forced.

The Rome Opera gave us the original version, with two sopranos. Carmela Remigio (Adalgisa) usually has impeccable intonation but the Di Giacomo waywardness must have been infectious and both of them were wildly out of tune in the thirds they sing in the celebrated glorious duet in the first scene of the second act – Mira, O Norma.

Riccardo Zanellato was adequate in that thankless role of Oroveso, the cheer-leader and father of Norma, though again, adequate has no real place in Bellini.

All praise and glory to Gabriele Ferro’s conducting. The orchestra and off-stage band (mostly brass) played with precision and expression. Bellini is even more exposed than Mozart and the slightest hitch becomes magnified a thousand fold. But there were no orchestral hitches, though once again, I have to complain about the woefully inadequate amplification of orchestral sound at Caracalla. The amplification of the singers was much better. Jupiter helped there, of course, providing the favourable winds. Maestro Ferro was as accommodating as was possible to his singers’ needs and his pacing throughout showed a profound grasp of Bellini’s inventions.

There are further performances of Norma at the Baths of Caracalla on 25 and 27 July and 1, 3, 5 and 8 August, all at 21.00.

Jack Buckley