Bartoli Brings Norma from Salzburg to Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bellini: Norma: Soloists, Chorus of Radiotelevisione Svizzera Italiana Lugano, Orchestra La Scintilla, conductor: Giovanni Antonini, Zurich Opera, Zurich 18.10.2015. (JR)

Adalgisa (Rebeca Olvera) & Norma (Cecilia Bartoli) (c) Hans-Jürg Michel

Bellini, Norma

Production: Patrice Caurier, Moshe Leiser
Sets: Christian Fenouillat
Costumes: Agostino Cavalca
Lighting: Christophe Forey
Chorus: Diego Fasolis, Gianluca Capuano

Norma: Cecilia Bartoli
Adalgisa: Rebeca Olvera
Pollione: John Osborn
Oroveso: Peter Kalman
Clotilde: Liliana Nikiteanu
Flavio: Reinaldo Macias

Zurich Opera presented the visually striking Robert Wilson production of Norma earlier in the year and here it comes again, although this time Zurich Opera have imported this Caurier/Leiser production from the Salzburg Festival: last year this performance won an ECHO Classics Award for the best opera recording of the year and in 2013 the production received an Opera Award as the “best new production”.  The production is now being toured round Europe and the tour starts in Zurich. No-one will say where it goes next, apart from four performances in Monte Carlo next February; other opera houses will make their own announcements. The four performances in Zurich were billed as “Guest Premières” at somewhat eye-watering gala prices; they sold out fast.

Bartoli’s name does not readily spring to mind when thinking of the role of Norma; of course, in former times Callas and Sutherland held sway in the part. Thanks to Alexander Pereira (former Intendant in Zurich, then Salzburg, now La Scala) Bartoli became Artistic Director of Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival in 2012 and two years ago she made her rather surprising debut there as Norma, to great acclaim. She wants to show the opera world that the role can be perfectly well sung by a mezzo, as it was apparently at the work’s original première.

Caurier and Leiser move the action, not entirely convincingly, from the Roman era and the Druids, forward to France during the Second World War and the Resistance. The action takes place in a school house somewhere in rural France: it doesn’t quite work, especially when the libretto repeatedly refers to Druids, temples and ancient Gods. A few harmless German soldiers, the occupying forces, patrolling outside the school house during the overture, do not reappear later in the opera.

The production utilizes the new edition of the score, going back to original sources, by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi, re-establishing original tempi, removing some later additions and restoring some often made deletions. We were told before the performance that Bartoli was recovering from a head cold, but apart from the occasional surreptitious blow of the nose one could hardly tell. Perhaps the voice was a mite more chesty and perhaps she held back with the volume. Bartoli had to strain a little to reach the very top notes, to which one normally looks forward, but one forgives her when her middle and lower registers are so full of character.  Bartoli is also a wonderful actress; she acts the part to perfection and when at the end she reveals the guilty party, herself, one shudders.

Olvera’s light and highly attractive soprano is well suited to the role of Adalgisa. Olvera sang the role in Salzburg and the duets with Bartoli are a perfect fit.

John Osborn’s light tenor may not appeal to all but generally, some screeched top notes apart, he was excellent.

The other characters were all well sung; in particular Peter Kalman impressed greatly with his firm, rich bass as Norma’s father Oroveso.

In the pit, Giovanni Antonini displayed his detailed knowledge of the score, mouthing every word of the libretto as the opera progressed. He coaxed wonderful phrases from Zurich Opera’s period orchestra, La Scintilla, especially from the woodwind, though it took me a while to get used to the sometimes ugly sound of their gut strings. Swift tempi were an added bonus.

The chorus was spectacular: an imported small chorus from Lugano, of course with perfect Italian diction.

Ultimately, this was without doubt the Cecilia Bartoli show: whilst showing off the bel canto vocal style of the music, Bartoli also displayed her superb technical agility, with its intricate coloratura passages and leaps. In the famous prayer to the moon goddess, “Casta Diva” Bartoli mesmerised the audience with an intimate rendering. Later, Norma vents her anger and Bartoli easily switches to fury mode and impressed with her acting skills.

Wagner was impressed with Bellini, especially the way the text was perfectly fitted to the score; Verdi was less favourably inclined, finding it hard to locate the melodies. One does not come away humming any particular melodies, but it was great theatre and a memorable night at the opera. At the end, Norma and her lover Pollione are set alight on a funeral pyre: flames on stage always send the punters away happy but it was Bartoli’s performance which brought them to a standing ovation.

Bartoli’s next rather surprising venture in Salzburg (from 13th to 16th May 2016) will be “West Side Story”, with Bartoli singing the role of Maria, supported by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

John Rhodes

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