Some divas want to grab all the glory. Cecilia Bartoli tries to share, but she can't help herself. In her latest recording, as Norma, Vincenzo Bellini's errant Druid high priestess, she sings the music, as it were, in flaming colors, while the rest of the cast sings in black and white. The others show us their characters in two dimensions, while hers comes before us in the round. They play roles. She lives every moment.
From the start of her career, Bartoli has examined potential repertoire choices in light of exhaustive textual and historical scholarship. For her Norma, Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi have prepared a new critical edition, conducted here by Giovanni Antonini, with the period band Orchestra La Scintilla, longtime partners of Bartoli's, in the pit. Liner notes summarize the editors' findings, broadly consistent with our evolving understanding of bel canto in its time: voices were lighter, concert pitch was lower and so on.
We are reminded, too, that while the contemporary public thinks of Norma as a soprano role, the reigning Normas of Bellini's day were Giuditta Pasta (the first of them all) and Maria Malibran, who in ours would be classified as mezzo sopranos. Bartoli has consistently billed herself as a mezzo soprano even when skyrocketing past the top F of Mozart's Queen of the Night, and Norma's notes are easily within her compass. What gives her possession of the role is not her range but a mastery of her instrument and an imaginative spontaneity that never fail her. Best of all, she anchors the marmoreal rhetoric of Felice Romani's libretto in the visceral reality of the moment. For her, high style is second nature. It exceeds her power to fade into the background.
An illustration, if I may, from the first-act finale. Norma has just found out that Pollione, the Roman father of the two children she has borne in secret, has now worked his wiles on the junior priestess Adalgisa. In a first surge of emotion, Norma turns to Adalgisa, denouncing Pollione for the scoundrel he is ("Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima"). To have fallen into his clutches, Norma says, is a fate worse than death. Next Adalgisa picks up Norma's melody, expressing her bewilderment. The final reprise is Pollione's, as he attempts to save face ("Norma! De' tuoi rimproveri") against Norma's barrage of her ferocious interjections.
Three characters, three identical stanzas, three clashing points of view: the formal setup is thoroughly conventional, with analogues from before Handel to Verdi and beyond. But what is the purpose of the convention? At a mindless level, it never hurts to let the carousel take an extra spin; folks who tap their toes to the music will sit back and enjoy the ride as long as it lasts. Put another way, time stops as we zoom in for a series of close-ups; ideally, but this is a lot to ask, each stanza will quiver with the particular character's unique emotions.
In Bartoli's performance, the action neither goes in circles nor stops in its tracks. It keeps moving forward, steadily tracking the fever chart of Norma. And why is it that attention never drifts? In the beginning, of course, because Norma has the exciting new melody all to herself, but that is not all. If historic divas of renown have given Norma's opening stanza a charge of stern, icy fury, Bartoli has quite different ideas. Pacing herself at a breathless clip (though her singing is not breathless at all), she strikes a curiously wistful note. Compassion for Adalgisa's heartache is bleeding into Norma's own. In Adalgisa's stanza, which is often cut, Sumi Jo spins a silver thread of sheer cluelessness as Bartoli marks time in dark, muttered harmonies, gathering her forces. And when John Osborn's lyrical Pollione chimes in, Bartoli springs like a tigress. His protestations pale in the face of her blistering abuse.
Really: could Bellini have wanted it any other way?