Now A Rarity, But You're Not Missing Much
TODD KAY | 05/23/2006
(2 out of 5 stars)
"This is one of those digital-era opera recordings (taped July 1994, issued the following year) that seemed to appear and then go out of print in approximately the amount of time it would take to play them twice. And, while I was happy to finally have tracked down a "like-new" copy via Amazon marketplace, twice is about as many times as I wanted to hear it.
I had looked forward to hearing this particular score played under the exacting baton of Maestro Muti, a controversial figure venerated by many for his scholarship, his remarkably acute ear, and his high standards of ensemble, and excoriated by others for what they see as killjoy pedantry and excessive strictness (he generally proscribes unwritten high notes and severely limits ornamentation from even star singers). It seemed to me that his customarily disciplined, taut, urgent leadership would be a stimulating corrective or at least an alternative to the slack and sleepy conducting and/or second-rate execution that has compromised many previous recordings of Bellini's masterpiece, however vividly sung and acted. And that did hold true in the main. Muti runs a tight ship as usual, and the orchestra and chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (an ensemble with which he has very deep roots; it was his work as their principal conductor that launched him to international prominence 25 years before) rises to the challenge. Only here and there does the reading get too hard-driven, with the brisk tempi pursued to the point of hectic joylessness (much of the overture suffers this way, as does the "Guerra! Guerra!" choral outburst). Still, while this is not the most inspired performance I have heard from this conductor in terms of musical shaping and flow, it is a reading of both vitality and sensitivity -- the canny pacing of the Adalgisa/Pollione duet is an example of discreet accompaniment at a very high level. In technical terms, the live recording is well balanced, and it's nice in this opera to hear choristers audibly "right in the thick of things" when they're in mass formation on stage, and not illogically distanced, as sometimes is the case in studio-made products.
It is a shame that one of our great living conductors of Italian opera was not matched in this work with an equally adept cast. Eaglen makes some attractive sounds in the middle of her range at mezzo-forte or less, but Norma does not seem to be a role for which she is particularly well suited, at least on the evidence here. The voice is fatally lacking in flexibility, so that florid patches are barely marked; pitch is often errant, especially on top; and the sound tends to harden and take on a glassy quality when she needs to step up the volume. La Scola's Pollione is worse, and provincial to a depressing extreme: it's all so much gritty, colorless hectoring, innocent of style, blowsy of line where legato is called for, and with registers poorly equalized. That leaves Mei. For most of the recorded era, the role of the young priestess Adalgisa, who ideally should have a more vulnerable, less mature sound and bearing than that of her rival Norma, was cast with mezzos. Many of them were fine musicians, some even legendary singers; but simply by dint of their natural endowment, they made the character sound inappropriately matronly. The best for which one could hope in those times would be either a very young mezzo (Ludwig at the time of the second Callas recording) or a mezzo with some soprano characteristics (Cossotto and Verrett, both of whom had a wide enough range to successfully essay select soprano roles), or both. Soprano Montserrat Caballe, herself a distinguished former Norma, made a mark on the opera's performance history when she took the part on Joan Sutherland's second commercial recording of the opera in the early 1980s, and the casting trend in recent decades has followed suit. Eva Mei on the present recording gives the most satisfying performance of the three principals. She's a pleasant-sounding Adalgisa in the modern/authentic lighter-voiced/soprano mold, and she can make her voice move to the specifications of the music. Her shortcoming, alas, is one she shares with Eaglen and La Scola -- none of them is, here, a particularly engaging, expressive or imaginative singer or dramatic presence; collectively they make for an object lesson in singers "filling" roles rather than inhabiting them. And a NORMA with three dramatic ciphers, two of whom also have significant strikes against them in the pure-singing sweepstakes, is simply not a recommendable NORMA.
I wish I could marry the virtues of Muti's conducting here to the vocal glamour and security of the 1972 RCA recording featuring Caballe, Cossotto, and Domingo (the principals of Muti's later AIDA recording, come to think of it). That set (perfunctory and anonymous conducting by Cillario notwithstanding), both of the Callas/EMI recordings under Serafin, the legendary Caballe/Vickers/Veasey live performance at Orange (on DVD), and still others far surpass this one. It would have been an acceptable way to pass an afternoon if encountered in radio-broadcast form, but was scarcely worth preserving."
James Walters | Seattle, WA USA | 11/29/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I'm not sure why people are so hard on Eaglen. This recording captures her early in her career, and in very beautiful voice. She sings beautifully and really displays an enjoyable portrayl of Norma. This recording has a firm place among my other favorite Norma's Caballe and Callas. I also find the casting of a lyric soprano in the role of Adalgisa interesting, its almost worth it just for that. Give it a chance if you want to add to your Norma selections, there isn't another Norma out there like it."