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Norma Met 1937 | IPCD 1063-2
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Reviews for IPCD 1063–2

Bellini NORMA

BELLINI Norma • Ettore Panizza, cond; Gina Cigna (Norma); Bruna Castagna (Adalgisa); Giovanni Martinelli (Pollione); Ezio Pinza (Oroveso); Metropolitan Op Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1063-2 mono (2 CDs: 157:48) Live: Metropolitan Opera, New York 2/20

Henry Fogel
FANFARE magazine
March/April 2017

It would seem appropriate to get the “ethical” issues out of the way first. Richard Caniell, the proprietor of Immortal Performances and one of the true geniuses of restoration of historic recordings, has made some changes in the actual performance captured here. He is forthright enough to admit this in his accompanying notes. In referring to his reluctance in the past to even work on and release this performance, he says “The major problem for me was Cigna’s occasional flat notes. And then it occurred to me that a sliding pitch adjustment of those notes might rescue them (provided it was in open notes so there wasn’t strong orchestration that would reveal the adjustments) and I could reduce the volume of the sustained, off-pitch, screeched note she sang in the Act II finale so that it wouldn’t grate. These notes had repeatedly prevented me from rehearing the broadcast—I cringed as they approached, and while not all of them could be rescued, enough repair was achieved to make the entire broadcast acceptable.”

First, clearly the most important factor here is that there is no attempt at deception. Caniell has stated what he has done, and those who hold a rigid belief that historic restoration should accurately produce what happened will find this objectionable. But for those (and I count myself in this group) who want to be able to enjoy a performance as much as possible that might represent what the artist could do on a good day, this approach is not only justifiable but necessary. I am familiar with this broadcast on both Eddie Smith’s LPs and a CD reissue on AS Disc. In both cases, appreciation of the many great attributes of the performance is so compromised by those in-the-moment flaws which Caniell points out that in the end I have found it not possible to listen through the entire performance. Now, for the first time, I can. And if this is not quite what Cigna achieved on February 20, 1937, I have no reason not to believe that it might well be what she achieved on a different date, either at the Met or in Europe. She was, after all, assigned to make the very first commercial recording of Norma, an indication of the respect in which she was held (that recording was made in 1936, just prior to her assuming the role at the Met). So, to end the discussion on this “ethical” issue, if you wish to consider it as that, I will from this point forward be reviewing Cigna’s performance as I hear it on this set, after Caniell’s adjustments (not one of which, by the way, is noticeable—a tribute to his skill). For those readers who are in principle opposed to the kind of adjustment I have described, there is little point in reading further, as I have little but praise for what I hear on these discs.

The principal comparison for this Norma would be Cigna’s 1936 Italian recording, and this is preferable in virtually every way. First the studio recording is harsh and brittle in tone, whether heard on Cetra, Pearl, or Opera d’Oro transfers, and the result is an unpleasant edge to the timbre of Cigna, and also the Adalgisa, Ebe Stignani. Beyond recorded sound, Cigna clearly comes alive in a staged performance with an audience. Her intensity in the monologue “Dormono entrambi” is heartbreaking powerful. She inflects every phrase with specificity and appropriate color, and in my experience is only surpassed in that way by Callas and perhaps Gencer. Her studio recording at that crucial dramatic point lacks that immediacy, that sense of genuine drama.

It is true that from time to time Cigna does force the voice and turn strident. But it is also important to remember how demanding this role is, and how few singers managed it with real success. Cigna was the Met’s Norma between Ponselle and Milanov, and then the house waited for Callas (of whose Norma it might have had more had Rudolf Bing not been more interested in discipline and rules than he was in bringing the greatest artists to his public). Cigna’s ease with fioratura is clearly limited (Milanov’s was not much better), and some passages are simplified while others are clearly uncomfortable for her. But on the positive side, there is a basically lovely tone with a real glow in it, a complete involvement with the drama and with specific text. Her Norma is never an opera singer to be admired; it is throughout a real and tortured human being struggling with deep internal conflicts, at once proud and powerful, but genuinely vulnerable. I find her Norma a more complete portrayal than those of some singers who managed the purely vocal part of the assignment better.

It is important to note that this is not bel canto Bellini as we have now come to hear this opera, first through Callas, and then through Caballé, Sutherland, and perhaps Bartoli. This is Norma as dramatic Italian opera in the grand tradition. Not only Cigna, but all of the principals and the wonderful conductor Ettore Panizza, combine for a thrilling evening of gripping music theater, with characters who are real people, not cardboard cut-outs singing beautiful melodies. Callas was perhaps the first who was able to combine both aspects that make up the role. Lilli Lehmann is reputed to have said this role was so difficult she would rather sing three Brünnhildes than one Norma. Perfection is perhaps even more elusive here than it is with other roles. Cigna has some vocal rough passages, in particular at the end of what the Met calls the second act (the Met performed it in four acts in those days). High notes, and some of the passagework demanded by the score, find the soprano stretched. But the compensation is in the vast majority of fine singing, and the completeness of the character that she portrays.

The big scene that opens the third act, “Dormono entrambi,” is one of Bellini’s most daring conceptions—not really recitative, not really an aria, but something inhabiting an odd space between them. This is the scene where Norma considers killing her children, and then is repelled by the fact that she has that thought. The mood is set, importantly, in the orchestral introduction, and Panizza is masterful. He establishes the dramatic tension through his use of dynamics, subtle rubato, and phrase shaping; we are prepared for the drama of Norma’s monologue. Cigna doesn’t disappoint. Every word is clearly articulated, spit out with incisiveness and meaning. The first two words are filled with portent. The torture of the character, the fight going on within her, is crystal clear in every measure. This is truly great singing-acting, and we are fortunate that it is preserved here. Cigna’s studio recording is not nearly as powerful in this crucial scene. Her declamation is much more matter of fact. Also in the opera’s final act, Cigna rises to the occasion with a combination of glowing vocalism and trenchant coloration. This Norma is alternately defeated and proud, and we hear it all. There is no denying the occasional shrill high note or struggle with some passagework, but those moments pale when set against the grandeur and power of Cigna’s overall achievement. What this most definitely is not is a bel canto Norma. Dewey Faulkner’s excellent, and candid, notes accurately point out that Cigna’s repertoire was in the dramatic and verismo arena, and she brings that sensibility to Norma. She spits out venom at Pollione and Adalgisa in a way we do not associate with this score, but them immediately follows with some very beautiful singing. At “In mia man alfin tu sei” Cigna hurls the words out at Pollione with utter disdain. At moments like that those looking for a more “pure” bel canto line might be offended; others will find it gripping. I know of no Norma like hers, and while it would never be the only way I want to hear the opera, and it can fairly be described as uneven, I do feel richer for having experienced it. And I much prefer it, flaws and all, to Cigna’s tidier studio recording.

Bruna Castagna, a mezzo-soprano of enormous value to the Met from the middle 1930s to the middle 1940s, is every bit Cigna’s equal. Her rich, powerful voice is also blessed with considerable flexibility, and an ability on the singer’s part to lighten the color. The scenes between Adalgisa and Norma are powerful because of the strong singing of both, but also the strong dramatic personalities that both bring to every phrase. Castagna’s dark vocal color contrasts nicely with Cigna’s brighter sound, but the two also blend well when that is what the music demands.

As for Pinza, we are simply experiencing a miracle as we listen to him. It is one of the most naturally beautiful, rich, and evenly produced voices of any male singer in the recorded history of opera. And that voice is wedded to an innate natural musical instinct and theatrical flair that renders criticism irrelevant. His Oroveso is a towering achievement.

Martinelli is a bit more complicated. His voice, as recorded here or anywhere, always exhibits a bit of tightness. But Caniell’s restoration here has given the voice more warmth than it often has in these broadcasts (and, frankly, which resonates with his stellar reputation among the Met public and critics throughout his long career). He will also surprise those who think of him as an Otello with the elegance of his singing, the evenness of his legato, and his feel for Bellini’s long lines.

Thelma Votipka’s Clotilde is yet one more bonus. She had made her debut at the house in 1935, and was to sing there until 1963 in a total of 1,422 performances, reputedly the most of any female singer. She brings lovely vocalism and attention to text to this role.

Panizza is another hero in this performance. The more broadcasts of his that we hear, the more we realize his strengths as a conductor. He always shapes the line beautifully, but also accentuates the drama. His “Guerra” chorus is whipped through in a frenzy, with remarkable precision. His conducting is the centerpiece of a performance that can best be described as thrilling music theater.

As is always the case with Immortal Performances, the production elements that accompany the discs are extraordinary. A wonderful booklet with incredibly insightful notes by Dewey Faulkner and Caniell himself, and great historical photographs that almost make us feel as if we were back in the glorious old house! And if you enjoy the broadcast commentary, it is there as well. If you don’t, it is tracked separately so that it can be easily avoided. This company is a model for how to lovingly document historic performances.

Obviously a 1937 radio broadcast has sonic limitations, but this transfer is so far superior to any that preceded it, and frankly is significantly better than my expectations had been, that it is not difficult listening for anyone who has an interest in historic operatic performances.

Bellini NORMA

BELLINI Norma • Ettore Panizza, cond; Gina Cigna (Norma); Bruna Castagna (Adalgisa); Giovanni Martinelli (Pollione); Ezio Pinza (Oroveso); Metropolitan Op Ch & O • IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 1063-2 mono (2 CDs: 157:48) Live: Metropolitan Opera, New York 2/20

Ken Meltzer
FANFARE magazine
March/April 2017

This February 20, 1937 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, featuring an all-star cast, has long been available from several labels (what Immortal Performances producer Richard Caniell refers to as “the usual line-up”) specializing in historic live recordings. Until now, my familiarity with this broadcast has been via a 1997 issue from Arkadia on its The Golden Age series. In his Recording Notes, Caniell reveals that despite numerous requests, he has, until now, resisted the temptation to offer his own restoration of the broadcast. However, upon revisiting the performance, and confronting the severe “pitch lapses” found in previous issues, Caniell decided to take the plunge.

And to be sure, this is a document worthy of the care and attention Richard Caniell has lavished upon it. The cast includes a quartet of great artists, at or near the height of their powers, and a master conductor of the Italian operatic repertoire. Most problematic of the four vocalists is the exponent of the title role, Gina Cigna. To be sure, the issues are a direct product of the singular challenges posed when performing Bellini’s heroine. Norma demands a soprano of extraordinary stamina. She must be a singer who can combine vocal beauty, power, and flexibility. And all of these gifts must be skillfully employed by an artist with exquisite musical tastes, and the dramatic subtlety and inspiration worthy of the finest Shakespeare actress. Among those who have left us complete recordings of the part, Maria Callas in her vocal prime (early to mid-1950s) probably is closest to realizing all the supreme components in this role. Cigna, one of the leading dramatic sopranos of her day, and making her Met role debut as Norma, is able to handle the majority of the challenges, and in a most admirable way. Cigna’s identification with the role is never in doubt. She, like all the principals in this performance, understood that Bellini’s recitatives deserve every bit as much dramatic care and musicianship as the great set pieces. Cigna phrases the music with great affection and sensitivity. While some may find Cigna’s approach at times a bit melodramatic, I do not. Cigna also possessed a rich and brilliant dramatic soprano, and she never flags throughout the opera. On the debit side, moments that demand the utmost vocal flexibility are a challenge for Cigna, and there are a few occasions when high notes miss their mark. Still, Cigna was an important artist, and I think her performance, especially in collaboration with such distinguished colleagues, makes this Norma a most compelling document (Cigna also made a 1936 studio recording of Norma, for Cetra).

No reservations need be applied to the remainder of the principal singers. Tenor Giovanni Martinelli was 51 at the time of this broadcast, and singing his first Met Pollione. Martinelli had been performing at the Met since 1913, and was in the final stages of his vocal prime. In a few more years, while the artistry would remain as compelling as ever, the voice would begin to lose some of its luster and security. Martinelli’s tenor was never the richest, most classically beautiful voice, but it was one of tremendous power and concentration. Martinelli was also a great singing actor. His diction and legato were exemplary, and his almost superhuman breath control allowed him to deliver long phrases in a manner other tenors could only dream of. Martinelli is in top form on this occasion, delivering a brilliantly sung, three-dimensional portrait of a character who often emerges as a stock figure. Mezzo Bruna Castagna, in marvelous voice, offers a beautifully sung and richly detailed portrait of Adalgisa. Bass Ezio Pinza provides true luxury casting as Oroveso. He sings both arias to perfection and, despite his relatively brief time on stage, is able to create a portrait of considerable nuance. Conductor Ettore Panizza delivers a characteristic performance, marked by impressive precision of execution and a superb balance of energy, inexorable momentum, flexibility of phrasing, and tremendous rapport with his singers. We are very fortunate that many of Panizza’s Met performances from the 1930s and 1940s, including this Norma, have been preserved on recordings.

My Arkadia copy of the 1937 Met Norma, problems of pitch variation aside, is in reasonably good sound for the recording’s origin and period. But the new 2016 Immortal Performances remastering offers a striking, and most compelling, improvement. The Arkadia release features a recessed perspective, further hampered by what appears to be an extra layer of resonance added to the original recording. In the Immortal Performances issue, Richard Caniell has brought the artists to the forefront, with strikingly greater presence, definition, and color. These improvements are accompanied by an increase in surface noise, but I find that a small price to pay for a restoration brings this performance and its artists to life in a way I had not previously heard. The correction of the pitch defects is, of course, most welcome. I should note that in this release, Richard Caniell also employed pitch adjustment to correct Cigna’s exposed, flatted notes. This, he has done expertly, although on a few occasions (the “Ei tornerà” sequence being one example), the correction a flat note threatens to impinge upon the basic timbre of Cigna’s voice. But that is a very rare occurrence, and a minor quibble in the context of another superb restoration by Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances.

The recording includes some of Milton Cross’s broadcast commentary. The accompanying booklet features informative and beautifully written essays by Dewey Faulkner on the performance and the history of Bellini’s Norma, as well as a plot synopsis, and Richard Caniell’s commentary on his involvement in this worthy project. I am grateful that Mr. Caniell finally decided to turn his attention and craft to this great, if occasionally flawed, historical document. Highly recommended.

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