Monday, August 26, 2013

Salzburg Festival, Norma

Haus für Mozart, Salzburg
August 24th, 2013

Cecilia Bartoli - Norma
Rebeca Olvera - Adalgisa
John OsbornPollione
Michele Pertusi - Oroveso
Liliana Nikiteanu - Clotilde
Reinaldo Macias - Flavio
Giovanni Antonini - conductor
Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier - directors
Christian Fenouillat - stage
Agostino Cavalca - costumes
Christophe Forey - lighting
Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera, Lugano
Orchestra La Scintilla

No matter what your views about Cecilia Bartoli are, if ever you had any reservations about her artistic intelligence and integrity or doubts about the range and power of her voice, you should watch this Norma.

The operatic know-alls in their grubby anoraks will, of course, debate endlessly and tiresomely about the vocal casting -- a mezzo in the title role and bright, high soprano in the role of Adalgisa and a  light, lyrical Rossini tenor as Pollione.

Bartoli herself and Riccardo Minasi and Maurizio Biondi, who prepared the new critical edition of the score on which the production is based, all make a convincing case -- in the programme notes and in the CD booklet -- for their controversial artistic decisions and choices.

But even leaving such musicological debates aside, I defy anyone not to be moved by the searing, blistering power of this production, the handsome elegance of the sets and the extraordinary, jaw-droppingly good singing.

Salzburg, like Vienna, must have one of Bartoli's biggest fan bases, but the usual scramble for tickets outside the Haus für Mozart actually threatened to deteriorate into fisticuffs among those who were desparately holding up Ticket-Wanted signs.

The production, an import from Salzburg's Whitsun Festival (which is headed by Bartoli herself), has turned out to be by far the biggest hit of the main summer festival.

And while the other productions -- such as Don Carlo and Meistersinger -- have been broadcast on TV and the web and will, no doubt, be available on DVD at some point, for some mystifying reason, Norma -- with its relatively short run of just five performances -- wasn't and won't be, we are told.
[But perhaps that's merely a canny marketing ploy.]

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have worked with Bartoli many times in the past.
Their visually rich, witty and hugely entertaining Le Comte Ory, which I caught in Vienna earlier this year, was also built around her, even if she was unfortunately indisposed for the performance I saw and was replaced by Pretty Yende.

Such uproariousness is, of course, ill-befitting for Bellini's rather po-faced and somewhat preposterous little tale of a mistletoe-bearing priestess.

Leiser and Caurier dispense with togas, temples and moon goddesses and update the plot to the 20th century, turning it into a story of resistance fighters and occupiers in the Second World War.

And the concept works surprisingly well if you blend out the surtitles and all their talk about druids and the god Irminsul.

Bartoli said she wanted to make the heroine more human. And she certainly does that.
Torn between vengeful fury and terror at the thought of killing her children, she shook so hard while brandishing a knife in "Dormono entrambi" at the start of Act 2 that I was seriously concerned she might injure herself.

But more than her acting, it was Bartoli's voice that had the audience welded to their seats.
Notwithstanding a stumbled, strangely strangled start to "Casta diva" -- which was also marred by a few intonational impurities in the solo flute -- Bartoli was in blow-torching form.

Her detractors like to say Bartoli's voice is too small.
The Haus für Mozart is the most intimate of the Salzburg Festival's three opera venues, but it's by no means tiny.
And from where I was sitting in the first balcony, I could hear every word, from the most hushed pianissimo to the furious fireballs of her fortissimi.
Bartoli also has a breathing technique like few others and can spin seemingly endless lines on only the shallowest of breaths.

Biondi and Minasi say their edition is complete and uncut and restores some numbers that are traditionally shortened or omitted completely.
Bartoli therefore has much more to sing than is the case in more traditional Normas, but never showed any sign of flagging.

Just as Bartoli embodies the role of Norma, the other singers were every bit her match.
It was easy to understand how the young Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera with her angelic, childlike soprano could win Pollione's heart.
And US tenor John Osborn sounded even more at ease in Pollione's fiendlishly difficult writing than he does on the CD.

Michele Petrusi was similarly impressive as Oroveso, and Liliana Nikiteanu and Reinaldo Macias rounded off the ensemble admirably in the supporting roles of Clotilde and Flavio.

Zurich Opera's period-instrtument band, La Scintilla, sizzled, raged and wept their way through Bellini's astonishing orchestral writing under Giovanni Antonini.
So much so that I fear I'll be reluctant to hear Norma again on modern instruments from now on.

For me personally, this was the undisputed highlight of this summer's festival season.


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