More than one hundred years after
she last sang Norma in the United States, Lilli Lehmann and her
assumption of the title role in Bellini's opera continue to tantalize
admirers of great singing and torment sopranos who would emulate her.
Her statement regarding the strains of singing three Brünnhildes versus
one Norma is constantly repeated. When Kirsten Flagstad was asked by
Edward Johnson to prepare Norma in 1935, the General Manager ignored the
magnificent recent performances of Rosa Ponselle to remind Flagstad of
Lehmann's example. (Flagstad learned the role but cautioned Johnson
that he should hear her before scheduling it. Her first Met Fidelio
was the result.)
Lehmann arrived at Norma after
becoming known for the grandeur and eloquence of her Wagnerian roles,
Brünnhilde and Isolde, which she combined with another repertory ranging
from Carmen and Faust to Le Prophète and Les Huguenots. Norma at her
benefit performance on February 27, 1890 astounded an audience that felt
it knew her completely: "She demonstrated that her voice possesses far
more flexibility and that she had a greater command of the pure
ornamentation of singing than any one suspected," W. J. Henderson
reported in The New York Times, "and so long it is since this public has
heard so excellent an exhibition of this sort that the audience was
fairly carried away" [See Henderson's reservations in the complete review]. Henry Krehbiel in the New York Tribune noted a
house crowded as it hadn't been all season and maintained that her
performance demonstrated that "devotion to the lyric drama in its latest
and most significant phase does not necessarily preclude excellence in
the old domain of beautiful singing."
Krehbiel may be responsible for
the legend of Lehmann's Norma. During the final dress rehearsal for the
first American Götterdämmerung he cautioned her about singing all the
repetitions of Act II in full voice. Her reply has been frequently
quoted but almost never completely: "Don't be alarmed about my voice.
It is easier to sing all three Brünnhildes than one Norma. You are so
carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene that you
do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself. But
in Bellini you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct
emission. But I love Norma and Mozart's Entführung." In other words,
Norma is difficult, not for its strenuousness, but because of the vocal
poise that must always be maintained.
Lehmann sang Norma eight times in
the United States, in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Two almost
forgotten performances, on March 25 and 27, 1890, were in Oscar
Hammerstein's Harlem Opera House as a gesture of support for the
impresario in his first operatic venture. Her last three performances
were in 1891-92 for Henry Abbey's company at the Metropolitan.
Presumably, they were in Italian. In view of the interpretation that
has been put on her statement vis-à-vis three Brünnhildes and one Norma,
it is startling to be reminded that Abbey had planned a revival of Die
Walküre for her but when the time came she was out of voice. Walküre
was cancelled. And what did she sing instead? Why, Bellini's Norma,
on February 3, 1892.
Lilli Lehmann as Norma.
Photograph by J. C. Schaarwächter,