The mezzo soprano finds herself on top for once as she goes back to basics with an original instrument Norma.

She’s been dropping hints for years but at last Cecilia Bartoli has realised a long held ambition to record the title role in Bellini’s Norma.

The famous mezzo soprano and her record label Decca have been involved in several years of meticulous research in a “back to basics” approach to one of the most iconic operas in the bel canto canon. The musicological and historical context, as well as the genesis and early life of the opera turn out to be extremely complicated and had not yet been researched thoroughly.

Bellini conceived Norma for Giuditta Pasta. She and Maria Malibran, the two most popular interpreters during his lifetime, sang many parts, which today are considered mezzo-soprano roles. The young novice Adalgisa, on the other hand, was sung by Giulia Grisi, who had a lighter soprano voice (Bellini wrote Elvira in I Puritani for her, Donizetti wrote Norina in Don Pasquale). The virtuosic daredevil Pollione was sung by Domenico Donzelli, whose repertoire included many tenor parts by Rossini, and who thus had a more flexible voice than we have become used to in the 20th century.

“Cherubini and Donizetti, certainly Meyerbeer, Verdi and of course Wagner are known only through a misconceived, gritty verismo style which ill befits even Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana or Puccini’s Turandot”, says Bartoli, the driving force behind the project. She laments the 20th century trend to favour voices in this repertoire with what she describes as “an excess of volume, forced, shrieked or disjointed sound, sobbing and slurred notes, a wide vibrato, imprecise intonation and variable notes.”

The decision to choose the vocal colours intended by Bellini has made it possible to go back to the original keys and tonalities and to open up traditional cuts. Naturally, repeats are ornamented according to the custom of the time and, in Norma’s case, often inspired by variations that were passed down by pupils of Giuditta Pasta herself.

A new critical edition of the score by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi has made it possible to reconstruct Bellini’s original orchestration and the new recording generally follows the composer’s dynamics and tempo indications. The result proves how unusually differentiated and colourful Bellini’s orchestral writing actually was. Crucial to the recording process was the choice of period instruments from Bellini’s time courtesy of the outstanding Orchestra La Scintilla.

Lamenting what has been lost over the years Bartoli says, “The colours and nuances of the lower registers, precisely that diversity which makes music speak at all, become sacrificed then to the obsession with higher pitch and a brilliant tone.” And she’s evangelical on the subject of the part that period instruments can play in a reconstruction. “The clarity and refinement of sound, the balance between the registers of a piano from Chopin’s time plainly differ from those of a modern grand piano”, she says. “Equally, the atmosphere changes when the prelude to Norma’s Casta Diva is played on an early-Romantic wooden transverse flute, and as stipulated, the aria sung as a prayer and in the required pianissimo. This is doubtless the reason why bel canto in our time is frequently criticised for monotony and tedium, whereas it was capable of actually profoundly moving its contemporaries emotionally.”

Her aim in restoring the form, the vocal tessitura and timbres and the musical texture of the opera is to reveal Norma not as some superhuman, statuesque priestess on a pedestal but as an earthy woman of flesh and blood, who struggles with modern and utterly human problems. Norma’s fate is to be torn between duty and personal interest and betray her people for love, only to be left by her husband for a younger woman.

The project goes back at least five years for Bartoli. “During my research for the two-hundredth birthday of mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran (1808–36), I explored the repertoire of this legendary singer”, she says. “Astonishingly, there were quite a number of roles which are nowadays assigned without too much reflection to the lyric or even light soprano voice. The two Bellini operas La Sonnambula and Norma were particularly surprising examples. Bellini himself commented on Malibran’s Sonnambula, heard in London: ‘… I was the first to shout at the top of my voice: “Viva! Viva! Brava! brava!” and clapped my hands until I couldn’t any more’, he wrote in 1833.”

From that moment on, Bellini was devoted to Malibran, and only the early death of both prevented the Sicilian composer from in all probability writing a new, tailor-made opera for his adored friend. But the artist for whose voice he had composed the two aforementioned works, among others, and who belonged to the most celebrated singers of the time, was according to present-day perceptions a mezzo-soprano too: Giuditta Pasta (1797–1865).

“In the 1830s, Malibran and Pasta were the most sought-after performers of Norma”, says Bartoli. “Even in Italy, as a rule markedly polemical for or against certain singers, critics and public alike found appreciative words for both: in Milan one could read that ‘Madame Pasta seems to us the most perfect example of the classical genre, on stage, while Madame Malibran seems to us so in the romantic genre,’ while the Neapolitans punned: ‘[Malibran] is Norma, and may be the norm for every other Norma.’”

Nevertheless, Bartoli is quick to defend some of her famous predecessors in the role. “This in no way diminishes the achievement of those singers to whom we owe the broad rediscovery of the bel canto repertoire and its crucial premiere recordings, with Maria Callas leading the way”, she says, pointing out that Callas was very keenly aware of the legacy of Pasta and Malibran. However, she points out “if the (star) soprano was singing the title role, then a mezzo or even contralto had to necessarily take on Adalgisa. But when we read Bellini’s manuscripts, it becomes clear that even today the conventional casting in most theatres of the main roles in Norma does not accurately reflect the vocal character of the parts, and carries on the misguided tradition of the Fifties.”

She goes on to point out that “from the point of view of register and virtuosity the differences between Adalgisa and Norma are not at all that substantial – in the manuscript score, after all, all three female roles in the opera are marked “soprano”. The distinction is more with regard to dramatic content: even though still young, Norma has experienced more of life, is more mature…Against this, the altogether maidenly, chaste novitiate Adalgisa, just received into the temple and already seduced by Pollione: her music is indeed lyrical and intense, but never dramatic; Norma, on the other hand, is depicted more heroically. To my mind, bringing out this contrast through diverse timbres and personalities makes a great deal of sense: but in keeping with the character of the role, and so with Norma as a mezzo-soprano and Adalgisa as a soprano.”

Whatever your view, and there are bound to be some for whom Bartoli’s take on Norma will be a step too far, the opera has always been seen as one of the touchstones for virtuosity in the bel canto repertoire. Fortunately, the cries of “fiasco, fiaschissimo” (“a fiasco, a complete washout”) at the first performance at La Scala (probably coming from jealous competitors and their paid claque) did not stop the ensuing worldwide success of Norma, and Bellini himself remained convinced that this was his finest opera.

Bellini’s Norma starring Cecilia Bartoli, Sumi Jo and John Osborn is released this month on Decca and is reviewed in the July issue of Limelight (available mid June).