Saturday, 13 August 2016

Towards a more historically informed view of performances of Bellini's Norma

Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn in 'Norma' - Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn in Norma - Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
The two most influential female singers in early 19th century Italian opera were perhaps Rossini's muse (and later wife) Isabella Colbran for whom Rossini wrote a series of roles including Desdemona in Otello, and the title roles in La donna del Lago, Armida, and Semiramide, and Giuditta Pasta, who inspired Bellini's Norma and La sonnambula and Donizetti's Anna Bolena. what the two have in common is our uncertainty about what their voices sounded like, what vocal category we would place them in nowadays.

Our view of the roles they inspired has been coloured by the 20th century experience of the works. So that the relative neglect of Rossini's serious operas has allowed both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos to explore Isabella Colbran's roles, and for performers to look at at period practice in these operas without the weight of history behind them. Joyce DiDonato has sung the title role in Rossini's La donna del Lago, and Opera Rara is recording Semiramide with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment this summer.

But Giuditta Pasta's roles have entered the operatic canon, and any performance of Bellini's Norma gets judged by the standards of Callas, Caballe and Sutherland. The problem is, of course, that these three performed Bellini in the way he has come to be performed in the 20th century with larger, heavier voices and louder orchestras. And the towering achievement of iconic performances such as Callas's Norma, makes it difficult for other performance ideas to take root.

Giuditta Pasta as Norma
Giuditta Pasta as Norma
These thoughts were prompted by some of the critical reaction to Cecilia Bartoli's recent performances in Norma at the Edinburgh International Festival in the Salzburg Whitsun Festival production with John Osborn as Pollione, and Gianluca Capuano conducting the period instrument ensemble I Barocchisti. I did not attend the performances, I was in Santa Fe, but read the critics views of the performance with great interest.

Some of the critical comment seems to have concentrated on the 20th century perception of the role, comparing the relatively modest size of Bartoli's voice to those of Callas, Caballe and Sutherland, and paying mere lip service to Bartoli's interest in exploring different ways of performing Norma. One critic mentions the idea that at the period women's voices were not classified, before making it clear that their critical yardstick was still Callas et al. Other comments included the relative lightness of the performance, the lack of weight in tenor John Osborn's Pollione. These are comments which prompt me to want to respond, 'well of course, given what we know of early 19th century Italian operatic performance practice.'

For all the possible faults with the performance, there as been insufficient engagement in a critical discussion about how the music sounded in the early 19th century and how this might inform our performances. Undoubtedly Callas's performance in Norma is an immeasurably great one, but it does not tell us much about what Bellini heard when Giuditta Pasta performed, and that is surely something worth exploring.

Giuditta Pasta undoubtedly had a 'dramatic' voice, and famously found 'Casta Diva' almost impossible to perform in its original high key. But this is dramatic in a world before Wagner's Brunnhilde, Puccini's Turandot and Ponchielli's La Gioconda. If you perform Bellini's Norma with gut strings, early 19th century bows and lower bridges, and with brass using narrow bore instruments, then the resulting orchestral sound is inevitably lighter, more transparent and a modern highly dramatic sounding soprano would be out of place. (You can hear Bartoli singing 'Casta Diva' on YouTube, and you can get her recording from

What we need when talking about this type of performance is consideration of what, if anything, the performance can tell us about re-discovering alternative performance practices where it is successful in its own terms.

The period instrument and HIP movements have often been very much instrument led, but early 19th century opera with its emphasis on the voice does not lend itself to this approach. If we are to bring to Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the sort of revelation which Roger Norrington brought to his performances of Beethoven symphonies, then we need more singers to experiment, and for critical comment which takes an historically informed view of the results.

Update: Correspondents have been generating some interesting information around this subject. The theatre at La Scala, Milan, where Bellini's Norma was premiered, is essentially the same auditorium as today. When built in the late 18th century it was a large theatre, holding 3000 people! But, the performances were different to those given today, the downstage area would be outside of the stage box (in front of the proscenium) where we have the pit today, and the orchestra would be where the first two rows of the stalls are. So the effect of the singers, far more forward into the auditorium, would be very different and more immediate, requiring less heavy voices. And the singer who premiered Pollione was famous for his Almaviva and Ramiro, so a far lighter voice than we consider nowadays.

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