Cecilia Bartoli breathes new life into Bellini's "Norma".
As a singer she is without parallel in today’s musical world. Boundaries that are taken for granted in the world of opera don’t apply to her. Even the usual distinction between a high- and low-range voice doesn’t influence her repertoire. But it’s not only her singing that makes Cecilia Bartoli, the Roman prima donna, an exceptional phenomenon on the world’s most renowned operatic and concert stages. She is also a tireless investigator and discoverer, exploring new, hardly-known repertoire, going back in time to the era of her famous colleagues from the 19th century, and also shedding new light on well-known works. In the early years of her career, she revealed completely new facets of 17th and 18th century music. Her artistic passion, which she expresses not only in her singing, and her flair for discovering previously unheard repertoire in library archives, have enriched our musical horizon with forgotten works by Vivaldi, Gluck, and Agostino Steffani. She has reintroduced works dating from the period when opera was prohibited in Rome, and most recently dedicated herself to music from the czar’s court in Baroque St. Petersburg.
Having often performed Rossini early in her career, the singer is now turning her attention increasingly to Italian bel canto – in particular the operas of Vincenzo Bellini, one of the genre’s most sensitive and sophisticated figures, with his “long, long, long melodies” (to quote Verdi).
Bartoli has been a regular guest at the Festival Hall since its year of inception and has presented most of her solo projects here. Her Maria Malibran program from 2007 and 2008 is especially well-remembered, which involved travelling in a huge truck – a sort of mobile museum. The truck also found its way to the Festival Hall; it’s no surprise that Bartoli brought the program to Baden-Baden, given that Malibran’s sister Pauline Viardot-García, an equally well-known figure of 19th century opera, had made the city her home. Maria Malibran plays a key role in Bartoli’s ambitious bel canto project that captivated the music world in Salzburg and that she is now bringing to Baden-Baden: a performance of Bellini’s Norma based on the new critical edition by Riccardo Minasi and Maurizio Biondi, which hearkens back to the work’s origins. After Giuditta Pasta, the Norma of the not-so-successful premiere, Malibran’s was the second most famous portrayal of the priestess. Only after she took on the role did the opera finally become popular.
Bartoli has been artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival since 2012. This position provides her with the freedom to develop and implement stage productions, in addition to aria programs for concerts and CDs, completely according to her own vision. She is able to select not only the works performed, but also the directors, conductors, and singers who best harmonize with her conception. Norma was not a natural role for her, though she has previously sung Bellini’s Somnambula – including a performance at the Festival Hall Baden-Baden. But if Maria Malibran, who sang so many roles that feature in her own repertoire, was a famous Norma, why shouldn’t Bartoli give the part a try?
With the new edition of the score, the path was soon open to a new (but in reality authentic) approach to the opera. Voice type and character play an important part. Following the example of Maria Callas, the legendary interpreter of Norma in the 1950s, the druid priestess was transformed into a weighty soprano role. Yes, you had to be able to sing coloraturas, but you also had permission to turn up the drama a little. On the other hand, mezzo-sopranos, even those with a deeper voice range, were happy to sing the role of Adalgisa. A rewarding experience, particularly in the great duet with Norma, one of the most beautiful duets for two women in the whole operatic literature.
But it soon became clear to Bartoli that musically and dramaturgically speaking, this doesn’t correspond to the intentions of Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani. Norma is the more serious and mature of the two characters, and thus requires a darker and weightier voice. In contrast, a lighter and brighter voice is more suited to the role of Adalgisa, the young and highly emotional priestess. Rebeca Olvera, who sang the young priestess in Salzburg and will also play the role in Baden-Baden, has such a voice. But vocal ranges and colors are not all that is different in Bartoli’s Norma; the approach to the score also departs from convention. During Bellini’s lifetime, melodies were ornamented during repeats, as was the custom in Baroque music. Bartoli is famous for her artful ornamentation in the Baroque repertoire. But the singer is not merely following her intuition. She joined with the editors of the critical edition of Norma in studying ornamentation practice at the time the opera was composed – the way Giuditta Pasta sang the role in those early days. Bartoli has elaborated her coloration of Bellini’s melodies according to these models. And she has succeeded in gracefully phrasing the composer’s endlessly expansive melodies.
An essential part of the “new” Norma presented by Bartoli and her team is a sound ideal that also differs from conventional performances. As we would expect, the production makes use of historical instruments. The singer has often emphasized that in early 19th century opera, the orchestra and singers didn’t have such a big sound as they do today. Since they didn’t have to sing powerfully in order to be heard above the orchestra, a more subtle and differentiated interpretation was possible. The tuning at the time was also somewhat lower than it is now. And the instruments had different colors. On the subject of colors, Bartoli calls attention to the opera’s most famous passage, Norma’s aria “Casta Diva.” With a historical wooden transverse flute in place of the modern metal version, a completely different atmosphere is made possible, and the aria becomes a quiet and intimate prayer.
The mood, atmosphere, sound ideal, and role profiles all diverge from the standard in Bartoli’s Norma project at this year’s Autumn Festival. The production subscribes to a different aesthetic and takes into account the work’s origins in the 18th century bel canto tradition. But naturally this Norma is not meant to be an opera museum, but to touch today’s audience. When this happens, the staging, with its direct appeal, is at the service of authentic musical expression. Bartoli chose Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurie for her directorial team, having already collaborated with both in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Rossini’s Otello. Leiser and Caurer transfer the action from antiquity to occupied France in the 1940s, with the druid priestess becoming a partisan. In her on-stage demeanor and costume, Bartoli intentionally follows in the footsteps of legendary Italian actress Anna Magnani, and the production’s atmosphere conjures up memories of the film Rome, Open City. Norma is revealed to be totally human, a passionate woman, and not a distant and aloof priestess.
Her colleagues are well aware that when Bartoli takes on a project, she doesn’t see herself as a diva or prima donna, and a cult of personality in any form is foreign to her. When we talk with singers, musicians, dramaturgs, and assistants who have collaborated with her, they testify to the serious and humble approach that she brings to her work. Once again, she is an artist in a class of her own – in the words of her colleagues and admirers, “La Bartoli.”
Text: Karl Georg Berg
Photos: Uli Weber / Decca