Rosa Ponselle in Bellini's Norma, November 16, 1927
Review of Lawrence Gilman in the New York Tribune
If Vincenzo Bellini, miraculously restored to earth, had attended last night’s performance of his Norma at the Metropolitan, he would have had no cause to write afterward, as he wrote dejectedly to a friend after the premiere of the opera at La Scala ninety-six years ago” “I have just returned from the performance of Norma, and would you believe it – Fiasco! Fiasco! Solenne Fiasco!”
He would assuredly have felt that Norma as revived last night almost a century after its premiere in Milan, and more than a generation after its last hearing at the Metropolitan, was anything but a fiasco – solemn or otherwise. From the moment when Miss Rosa Ponselle, standing beneath Mr. Urban’s sacred oak in the “dim, druidical wood” of the first scene with the Metropolitan’s chaste moonbeame silvering her slim white figure and the kneeling awestruck crowd encircling the priestess, poured her remarkable voice into the lovely mold of Bellini’s “Casta diva,” the prosperity of this revival was a forgone conclusion.
For Norma herself, despite the musical importance of certain of the duets, is very nearly the whole thing in Bellini’s opera; the other characters are mere “feeders.” It is the druid priestess herself, betrayed, revengeful, despairing and, at last, serenely and exaltedly self-sacrificing, upon whom Bellini and his librettist have centered almost all of the dramatic interest and the musical significance of the work. And Rosa Ponselle, by the fervor, the dignity and the tonal beauty of her embodiment – which in its finest moments had even a touch of that fabulous, transfiguring thing, the “grand style” of the immortals – enforced and made eloquent this performance.
That Miss Ponselle succeeded in giving us a full-length portrait of Norma, painted in its proper intensity of color, with all that is inherent in the part set blandingly upon the canvas, it would be extravagant to say. Doubtless the unforgettable Lilli Lehmann was drawing a long bow when she called Norma the most exacting of all the rôles; but it is exacting enough, in all conscience – even the marvelous Lilli had trouble with the roulades and fioriture of “Ah, bello a me ritorno.”
What makes the part so cruelly difficult is the terrifying extremity of the problems that it poses for the interpreter. It asks of a singer the command of a style Hellenic in its serenity and repose – as in the matchless “Casta diva,” where the voice should pour itself into the mold of the song and achieve sculpture. Here the image of a Greek design should rise before the fancy as the vocal line swells on from note to note of the wondrous, slow-breathed, long-drawn melody, “with the noble movement of the bas-relief decoration of a vase.” We should be reminded, as Sir Owen Asher was reminded by Evelyn Innes so many years ago of “the romance of columns and peristyle in the exaltation of a calm evening.”
Norma asks of the singer this sure command of the classical beauty of repose – yes, but it also requires that the interpreter be a singing-actress of exceptional power and intensity, able to express what that shrewd observer, Henry Chorley, called the “wild ferocity of the tigress” as it flames in the heart of the frantic pagan Priestress, betrayed, infuriated, desperate – a lyric tornado of revengeful and stormy passion.
And the Norma is required not only to convey these stormy emotions through her skill and power as an histrion, but she must somehow contrive to utter them through the medium of Bellini’s merciless ornamentation – she must know how to give significance to roulades, to turn embroidery into lyric speech, to make a frill not seem a frill but a spontaneous effervescence of dramatic song – to turn lace work into living fire and brocades into poems. And at all times, whether she is voicing the serene, exalted loveliness of the mood of “Casta diva,” or the anger and despair of “Oh, non tremare,” she must sing the florid passages with the meticulous finesse, the delicate precision, the purity of style, required by those who dare the perilous upper reaches of these Italian skies.
To say that Miss Ponselle did not wholly fill these complex and tyrannous requirements is merely to say that she is not yet quite a Grisi nor a Malibran nor a Tietjens, nor yet a Lilli Lehmann – it is to say that she has left herself still a few more artistic worlds to conquer. Her singing of certain fioriture was not entirely free from raggedness. Some of the passagework was blurred. And in her moulding of the long, expressive lines of Bellini’s cantilena there was phrasing that might have been questioned by other than merely fanatical purists.
Nor is Miss Ponselle as yet quite the singing actress to do full justice to the stormy emotions of Bellini’s heroine. There was little suggestion in her performance of that “wild ferocity of the tigress,” that fury of the discarded mistress, the deserted mother, which Chorley reported of the impersonation of Giulia Grisi (which was modeled, he tells us, on that of Pasta, the creator of the role). Miss Ponselle is not yet able to project the figure of the imperious Priestess as she lives for us in Romani’s libretto and Bellini’s score…and the stature of the tragic heroine, are missing in this quieter, but very touching performance.
Her whole conception of the role is pitched in too low a key; it is deficient in fire and vehemence; its scorn, its fury, its damaged pride are softened and understressed – “a storm made sad and civil.”
Yet this impersonation has rare and excelling virtues. How truly and sensitively felt was Miss Ponselle’s embodiment of the Norma of the earlier scenes – the gravely hieratic Norma of “Casta diva,” a figure lovely and gracious dignity in the moonlight of the sacred grove; how exquisite the sentiment and the tonal beauty with which she invested that ageless and ravishing apostrophe to the pale goddess! How touching and simple she was in the scenes with her children; how movingly she sang the noble melody of “Toneri figli,” one of the greatest airs in all opera; and how she conquered by the restraint (which was there most admirably fitting) of her final scene of magnanimous self-sacrifice, when she tears the sacred wreath from her forehead and declares herself the guilty one!
The achievements of her companions in the cast were far less notable. Miss Telva’s Adalgisa was colorless and tepid in conception and none too securely sung. Of Mr. Lauri-Volpi, the Pollione, it must be said that he dealt roughly with most of Bellini’s golden filigree. Mr. Pinza’s Oroveso, Miss Egener’s Clotilde and Mr. Paltrinieri’s Flavio were undistinguished.
Aside from Miss Ponselle, Mr. Serafin reaped the major honors of the evening by his puissant and warm-blooded conducting, his masterly co-ordination of the allied forces.
Mr. Urban’s settings were not conspicuous for poetical beauty or imagination.
The opera itself remains a masterpiece of its kind. In his reaction form the extreme floridity of Rossini’s style, in his desire to revive the old and honorable Italian tradition of expressive cantilena, Bellini’s somewhat overdid the thing. The slow mellifluousness of a great part of the music, the constant succession of leisurely and long-breathed melodies (lovely and noble though some of them memorably are), lowers too much the vibration of the work as a lyric drama, slows its pulse, coagulates its blood stream – in spite of the exuberant flourishes with which Bellini was careful, at seemly intervals, to adorn his tunes.
Yet something in Romani’s drama seems to have taken Bellini by the throat, and forced from him an outpouring of music that, at its best, is enriched with the finest qualities of his genius –the pure and noble beauty of his melodic style, when it is uttering some exalted mood or is deeply touched with human feeling; his power of truthfully expressive utterance; his genuine though intermittent mastery of the grand style.
If we are afflicted with the triteness of the march tunes in Norma and the longeurs of certain of the arias, it behooves us to remind ourselves of the genius of such pages as that in which Norma imagines that “the silver small, the moon climbing all night upon Time’s curving stalk” is a chaste divinity of heaven, and sings to her in music as pure and urgent as the goddess of her shining throne, such pages as the remarkable introduction to the Second Act (the third in the Metropolitan’s division) where the waiting chromatic figure in the violins speaks so poignantly the dramatic mood; or the exaltation of the final scene, with its E major section that anticipates the Liebestod of Tristan. If Bellini helped himself to Beethoven in the music for the chorus, “Non parti,” he was able at last to give a useful hint or two of Richard Wagner.
Above all, there is in this music the dignity and continence of a spirit finely touched, finely gifted. For all its deficiencies, this is the testament of an artist who compassed loveliness, and fervor and distinction.
Review of W. J. Henderson in the New York Sun
Rosa Ponselle Takes Title Role, Written for Pasta and Sung by Her at Milan in 1831
Bellini’s Norma was resurrected at the Metropolitan Opera House last evening. One has noted that whenever Mr. Gatti-Casazza is recuperating from indisposition caused by following the advice of the Prater Cabinet he seeks comfort among the “ini” family – Rossini or Puccini. He now adds Bellini to his list and mounts with his unfailing munificence an opera which has long enjoyed the esteem of antiquarians and “casta diva” specialists. Possibly this revival may restore the work to life; usually its sporadic appearances on the stage are those of a galvanized corpse.
For those who delight in ancient history here are the records. Norma had its last previous New York performance at the Manhattan Opera House on September 18, 1924 by an organization whose name was almost as long as its season, the Manhattan Grand Opera Association. The principals were Agnes Robinson as Norma, Frances Paperte as Adalgisa and Rino Oldrati as Pollione. Before that it was given at the same theater by the Chicago Opera under the widely general direction of Mary Garden with Rosa Raisa as Norma, Gabrielle Besanzoni as Adalgisa and Forrest Lamont as Pollione. It had been revived for Miss Raisa in the company’s previous season at the Lexington Opera House.
It had not been sung at the Metropolitan since December 19, 1891 when the three principals were Lilli Lehmann, Mme. Pettigiani and Paul Kalisch, husband of Mme. Lehmann. There was no excitement. Indeed there rarely is in our day. Norma was imposing in 1831, when it was revealed in Milan, with Pasta, Grisi and Donzelli as the principals, and so important a personage as Schopenhauer declared that the libretto by Felice Romani was the perfection of dramatic treatment of a tragic subject. Amazing things have been said about the music also, yet Chorley, who lived in a day when the florid opera was still regarded as the acme of lyric art, described the music of both Bellini and Donizetti as consumptive variations on Rossini’s voluptuous theme.
Much of the persistent belief that there is a mysterious divinity concealed in the score of Norma is derived from the reiterated statement that Richard Wagner praised this composer. He did indeed, but the opera of which he repeatedly speaks is not Norma, but I Montecchi e i Capuleti, in which he had the good fortune to hear Mme. Schroeder-Devriant as Romeo. He afterward availed himself of this lady’s services in his Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser. However, when he was about to enjoy a benefit at Riga in 1837 he chose Norma, and wrote the frequently quoted bit of propaganda now preserved in the “Gesammelte Schriften.”
Norma contains three effective numbers for the principals: the famous “Casta diva” for Norma, which is by far the finest inspiration in the score and unfortunately is heard in the first scene; the trio, “Oh! di qual sei tu vittiama” for Norma, Adalgisa and Pollione and the duet,“Mira, o Norma,” for Norma and Adalgisa. There are two good choruses in the conventional style of the older Italian opera. There is much recitative which has the dignity and monotony of the operatic period when composers had not yet conceived any other medium for leading up to their lyric situations. There is considerable floridity in the women’s roles, but it has not the character of what is now called colorature. It should rather be claimed as dramatic bravura, a species of vocal utterance clearly defined in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. There is a plentitude of orchestral interlacing which halts the action of the drama and the ritornelle of all the airs are long and intrusive.
There is some pitiably cheap and commonplace stuff in the melodic content of the work. The long-famous Druid march has come down the years footweary and dusty. There is no reason why we should not be candid about the matter and admit that John Philip Sousa would have been ashamed to father such infantile prattle. At his best, Bellini is a facile melodist of the saccharine and sentimental type, but he occasionally finds a happy opportunity for the exercise of his peculiar talent, as in the “Casta diva,” with its steep-breathed phrases and its mellifluous suavity. The opera depends heavily upon what the artists put into it. The title role was written for Pasta, undoubtedly the supreme dramatic soprano of her time, a woman whose genius conquered an unattractive figure and a voice yelled in a certain part and containing tones never quite true. Her courageous and protracted labor developed a mastery of the florid style which made her passages of bravura veritable torrents of emotional utterance. It was surely the traditions of her impersonation of the erring priestess which evoked from Larousse the assertion that Norma demanded all the technic of singing together with the qualities of the tragedienne and the passionate accent of the artist.
It cannot be proclaimed that Miss Rosa Ponselle reached this level last evening. It can be said that she added to her repertoire an embodiment which will increase her fame and which deepens the impression created in recent seasons that the ripening of her talent has been the result of a growing sincerity of purpose and earnest study. Her “Casta diva” was a genuinely beautiful piece of singing. To be a great Norma is more difficult in these days of specialized singing than it was in those of Pasta and Grisi, when every operatic artist was expected to be thoroughly grounded in the technics of florid song. Miss Ponselle proved last evening that she has given much time and labor to the practice of vocalises, although there was much simplification and curtailing of the time-honored cadenzas. She had also given study to the Bellini recitative.
We are bound to confess, however, that in the recitatives, not only Miss Ponselle, but every one else in the cast was heavy and monotonous. The recitatives are in themselves conventional and not stirring, but they are susceptible of a more vivacious treatment than they received. Of Miss Ponselle’s creation there will be more to say from time to time. In certain of its aspects it was reminiscent of her Julia in “La Vestale.” We trust that she will not come to be a mere specialist in the portrayal of the erring vestals of antiquity.
Marion Telva as Adalgisa was painstaking and generally lachrymose. But she was in deep water and her conscientious efforts to keep her head above it commanded sympathy rather than enthusiasm. For Mr. Lauri-Vopi, the idol of all upstanding Italians, in the role of Pollione, the gentleman who preferred priestesses, little commendatory can be said. He is not given to lyric legato such as Brignoli poured into this music in the ante-Metropolitan days, nor has he anything approaching subtlety of nuance. Bellini’s music requires style which is entirely foreign to Mr. Lauri-Volpi’s art. His Pollione was little like a Roman patrician, but rather like a challenger of Bully Bottom, who wished to roar like a lion. His countrymen filled the air with their shouts of glorification. What is Bellini compared to a strong-throated tenor?
There is only one other principal in the opera and a small one at that, the high priest, which part Mr. Pinza sang indifferently. Minnie Egener was the representative of Clothilde, the nurse of Norma’s children.
The master hand in this revival was that of Tulio Serafin. It was manifest that he had bent himself to the restudy of the old work with deep devotion. He had even taken the trouble to go to the original manuscript score. He had trained the singers phrase by phrase and was responsible for the delivery of the cadenzas as well as the bodies of the arias and the recitations. He had built up an ensemble which had coherence of style and which made all the dramatic points with theatrical skill. Too much cannot be said in praise of the art and industry of this admirable conductor, who in this production had done all that man could to rejuvenate the venerable creation of one of Italy’s honored masters.
The scenic attire of the opera by Joseph Urban is excellent. The sacred oak of the first scene from which Norma cuts the branches of the parasitic mistletoe is imposing and quite in the mood of the episode. The sunlit exteriors of the second and last scene with their ponderous columns furnish a fitting background for the action. There is little attempt to break with the traditions of operatic scenery of the period, but rather the suppositions of a veneer of the better technic of contemporaneous scene painting.
A word for the indefatigable Giulio Setti. His chorus sang better than it had ever sung before in an Italian opera. Perhaps Mr. Serafin should have a share of the credit for this, but Mr. Setti surely did the hard work.
Review of Pitts Sanborn in the New York Telegram,
The Metropolitan Norma Turns Out a Distinguished Production
Tullio Serafin Presides Over a Cast Headed by Rosa Ponselle
Gatti-Casazza Presents Bellini Opera Before Enthusiastic Audience
There are many cultivated Italians who still regard Norma, all things considered, as the finest flowering of their country’s lyric tragedy. And yet, despite the fame that it has enjoyed through a lifetime only four years short of the century mark, Mr. Gatti-Casazza, who has given here Bellini’s two other surviving operas, brought back from oblivion an opera buffa of Rossini’s, and rediscovered for us several works by Verdi, got around only last evening to presenting his Metropolitan patrons with a revival of the dearly prized Norma.
Few acts of his entire consulship however, will be remembered with so much of grateful admiration as this attention, though belated, to Bellini’s version of the Medea legend as retold for the composer – with scene and characters transferred to Gaul under Roman dominion – by Felice Romani in one of the finest texts ever supplied to an Italian musician.
And if there is one glory for the eminent impresario there is another for the indefatigable Maestro Serafin, whose personal supervision of every detail of the revival and whose conducting last night was the very soul of the performance. Miss Rosa Ponselle, the Norma and Mr. Lauri-Volpi, the Pollione, furthermore, transcended any previous achievements of theirs upon our tight little island. Altogether, it was such an evening as the Metropolitan, or any other opera, provides about once in a blue moon.
Melody is Enthroned
Although the last previous Metropolitan performance of “Norma” occurred as long ago as February 3, 1892, the visiting Chicagoans have given it in New York within recent years, with Mme. Rosa Raisa as the Druid priestess who forgets her vows for the love of a Roman, and there have been several local presentations of less note by smaller companies. Still the temptation is strong to dwell now on the beauties of the score (and one might single out also many a felicitous passage from the poem).
There is, of course, the characteristic loveliness of Bellini’s melody - a loveliness which, together with Bellini’s habit of chromatic ornamentation, strongly influenced his friend Chopin. On that one might descant, as well as on the grace, the purity, the patrician hauteur of his idiom. One might examine also the aptitude of the melody for lofty and pathetic expression, without resort to more complicated attendant means.
One might dwell, too, on the appropriateness of his declamation, the studious and discerning choice of the just note for the just word – a trait of his style that led Luigi Mancinelli to dub him the Italian Wagner, in spite of the relative thinness of the orchestral scoring in his operas. Bellini’s declamation stems straight from the noble tradition of the early Italian masters, who, through Lully, imparted their manner of utterance to Rameau and Gluck, and thence to Wagner himself.
Then, there is the ever-interesting game of resemblances to play. Bellini, a student of Beethoven, shows the result of his studies again and again in this score, from the overture on.
Bellini and Beethoven
This device of the tonic-supertonic repetition, so dear to Beethoven, he employs freely. How Beethovenish again, the rising passage for cellos and bassoons in the introduction to the second act (third act as the Metropolitan divides the opera). Then, one notes the sincerest of compliments to the “Moonlight” sonata in the prelude to the chorus of priests, “Ah, del Tebro.” If only Bellini had gathered more of Beethoven’s harmonic strength and mastery of the orchestra!
And, to look forward, Bellini’s influence was by no means limited to Chopin. Wagner, who testified in various ways to his admiration for the Italian master, was well aware of Norma when he wrote Tristan und Isolde. Berlioz borrowed from the march of the Druids for his chorus of Carthaginians in Les Troyens a Carthage (a resemblance somewhat obscured by the change of rhythm from 4-4 to 12-8).
Verdi remembered Norma in many of his operas, and Flotow even borrowed a phrase from the superb finale for use in augmentation in the tenor air in Martha. And there’s the indebtedness of Liszt to that final ensemble in E major with the flatted sixth.
Since Norma is likely to be repeated at the Metropolitan many times, the game of resemblances can be resumed at will.
A Lehmann Dictum
The mighty Lilli Lehmann, the last woman to sing Norma at the Metropolitan previous to Miss Ponselle writes these significant words in her “Path Through Life”: --“This opera which bears so much love within it, may not be treated indifferently or just killed off. It should be sung and acted with fanatical consecration, rendered by the chorus and orchestra especially, with artistic reverence, led with authority by the conductor, and to every single eighth note, should be given the musical tribute that is its due.”
The love, the fanatical consecration, the artistic reverence, the authority of which the puissant Lilli speaks were present last night in the conducting of Mr. Serafin. Each and every measure was a monument to his devotion, his sympathy, his understanding, his imagination, his sense of beauty, his communicative enthusiasm.
What he accomplished with Bellini’s uneven and too often inadequate orchestra was … miraculous, and his inspiration and discipline could be detected throughout the delivery of the voice parts where Bellini, soaring above his own instrumental deficiencies, rose to supreme heights in the authentic style of the singers and their unmistakable absorption in an ideal task.
A Triumph for Ponselle
Of course, the chief burden rested on Miss Ponselle. The role of the passionate and sublime priestess is almost superhuman in the demands it makes on the voice and technique of the singer, and on her power and resources as an actress – a role which in difficulty and grandeur vies with Bruennhilde and Isolde.
Moreover, Norma is a role consecrated by a long and impressive tradition, beginning with Giuditta Pasta, the original Norma, and including Giulia Grisi, Maria Malibran, Jenny Lind, Therese Tietjens, Parepa-Rosa, Gabriella Kraus, Marie Wilt, and Lilli Lehmann, herself, to go no further.
Miss Ponselle, whose growth both as singer and as actress has been notable in the last two or three years, essaying Norma for the first time anywhere gave a performance of which she may well be proud. It marked the culmination of her career so far. With repetition she will deliver the [first] recitative “Sediziose voci” (a declamatory utterance as grandly molded as a piece of antique sculpture) with more freedom and repose, she will more easily maintain the long melodic flight of “Casta diva,” she will fill the measures of “Ah, bello a me ritorna” with a richer, warmer ecstasy.
But already she has gone far toward the complete mastery of her role (in particular she evidently understand the value of the dramatic coloratura in which it abounds), and it is doubtful whether she could ever surpass her magnificence of yesterday in the inexorable final scene.
Credit for the Rest
Mr. Lauri-Volpi as Pollione, the Roman pro-consul who is secretly married to Norma, both looked and acted his part admirably, besides singing with unwonted discretion and respect for style. Miss Telva has sung no other role with the feeling for legato, the sense of the phrase, the artistic dignity that she disclosed as Adalgisa. Unfortunately her control of her upper voice is imperfect. And, for that matter, Adalgisa is properly a part for a full soprano voice.
Mme. Egener was in all respects excellent as Norma’s attendant, Clotilde, and Mr. Paltrinieri made of Flavio, Pollione’s centurion, something more than a walking servant. The weak point in the cast was the guttural unsteady singing of Mr. Pinza as Norma’s father, the Arch-Druid Oroveso.
The orchestra obeyed Mr. Serafin with euphonious and eager élan. Mr. Setti’s chorus sang with admirable sonority and spirit. And there was elaborate and ingenious scenery supplied by Mr. Urban, beginning with a particularly splendid specimen of a gnarled and sacred oak.
One of the largest audiences in Metropolitan history assembled for this revival, and it gave Miss Ponselle an ovation after “Casta diva” which the eminently deserving soprano is unlikely ever to forget. Throughout the evening it remained exceedingly and properly enthusiastic.
Mr. Gatti-Casazza announces that the next Metropolitan “Norma” will take place on Thursday evening, December 1. There will be a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday evening, November 26.
From the review in Town Topics of 11/24/27 in column "Crochets and Quavers" signed by "The Mélomane"
A MAGNIFICENT REVIVAL OF NORMA
Once more the past has proved Mr. Gatti-Casazza's best bet. Last winter he revived Mignon after it had been absent for nearly a score of years from the Metropolitan stage. The revival was made with some hesitation, experimentally. It turned out, as far as the favor of the patrons went, the event of the entire operatic term.
Wednesday evening of last week Mr. Gatti-Casazza restored to currency Bellini's Norma and amid such scenes of enthusiasm as the Metropolitan has seldom witnessed. This was a riskier revival that that of Mignon, for though Norma is a work of infinitely greater genius, it dates from an earlier generation and a remoter mode, and it is inexorable in the demands that it makes on those who sing it. Moreover, there had been no Metropolitan performances of "Norma" since February 3, 1892, when the singing-actress who filled the tile role was that soprano of legendary prowess and abiding fame, the mighty Lilli Lehmann.
But in the case of this restoration from so distant a past the risk involved resulted in immediate and impressive gain. Norma was a triumph alike for the director who sponsored it and for the artists who participated in the presentation - in particular for Mr. Serafin, the devoted and tireless conductor, and Miss Rosa Ponselle, who proved herself a singer worthy to wear the mantle that has descended to her from the old-time divas of imperishable renown. To hear the beautiful, touching, and noble melodies of the Druid priestess sung by a voice so rich and with such a lovely appreciation of the true spirit of "bel canto" was in itself a keen and rewarding pleasure.
How the audience felt about it may be gathered from the fact that at the end of "Casta Diva," that exquisite supplication to the moon, the performance came to a full stop while the venerable walls of Mr. Gatti-Casazza's yellow temple fairly shook with the storm of delight and approval that burst from the huge audience. Similar tempests of applause punctuated the performance throughout the evening for the score of Norma abounds in solos, duets, trios, and large concerted numbers, which, when properly sung, cannot fail to stir the listener to enthusiastic manifestations.
It is worth noting, by the way, that those who consigned the plague of carriage calls to oblivion and stayed though regardless to the very end were abundantly compensated for so doing by a thrilling performance of the great closing ensemble in E major (with the flatted sixth), a movement which anticipates the culminating pages of Tristan und Isolde, and from which not only Wagner (always a fervent admirer of Bellini), but Liszt borrowed with alacrity.
If ever a role of opera demanded acting, this role of Norma does. To quote from the incomparable Chorley - he tells us that Giulia Grisi, perhaps the most famous of all Normas, disclosed in the part "the wild ferocity of the tigress, but a certain frantic charm therewith which carried away the hearer." Miss Ponselle has as yet contrived this unique and fascinating fusion. Nevertheless, her Norma, even more than her Julia in "La Vestale," proves the progress that she had made in histrionic technique, her impressive advance toward the acquisition of the grand manner. She is a memorable figure as the white-robed priestess with the tawny mane, whether invoking peace beneath the sacred oak amid the streaming moonlight, or erect before the high altar of her god in the bitter majesty of self-denunciation.
The crude young woman with the heaven-sent voice who nine years previously had made her first awkward appearance in opera on that same stage as the Donna Leonora of La Forza del Destino had indeed traveled far. Not yet the consummate singing-actress that she may one day become, the splendid achievement and still more splendid promise of her Norma hold out hope that the gracious forces of her manifest destiny will in the end prevail and that, daring all things, she will achieve them all.
Along with the prima donna of great gifts, praise excelling must go to the Maestro Serafin, who, like the on-driving engine of a capital ship, was the very heart and soul of the representation. Every measure of the score was vivified by his propulsive force, every phrase declared the glory of the fine and sensitive ideal, the searching affection and unswerving faith that animated his beat and gave light unto all his ways. This revival of "Norma" is surely a monument to his artistic consecration.
If of the other participants in the performance praise must be spoken in less abundance, they all deserve a large measure of respect and gratitude for the seriousness of their artistic purpose. Miss Telva's voice has not the freedom and certainty in the upper range that the music of Adalgisa requires, and yet on this occasion she was more nearly the "bel cantist," a singer in the full sense, than ever before. And the part of Adalgisa is especially difficult to cast, because it is at once dangerously high for a contralto and uncomfortably low for the usual modern soprano.
Mr. Lauri-Volpi made a superb figure of a Roman pro-consul and acted with discretion and force. In the earlier part of the evening he relapsed at moments into his habit of shouting, but in the last act he surprised the skeptical by his really fine and tempered vocal delivery. Unfortunately, Mr. Pinza's basso had not the nobility of tone nor even the freedom and steadiness, that one desires in the music of Oroveso.
The elaborate scenery by Joseph Urban and the costumes of the warrior Gauls, while picturesque, were rather dangerously suggestive of Götterdämmerung. A wildness, more classical and stylized, suggesting the steel engraving of the 1830's, with gray and silvers as the prevailing tone, would have been more in keeping with Bellini's decade and the genius of his music.
Yet, all in all, this was a production of which Mr. Gatti-Casazza and his coadjutors may be justly proud. It possessed that incandescence, that magnetic, compelling power which is none to common in any opera house and rare indeed in the great spaces of our Metropolitan, a hall of song by means favorable to the conduct and transmission of the electric thrill. All the more brilliant, then, the success of Miss Ponselle, Mr. Serafin, and their colleagues, so ardently sponsored by Mr. Gatti-Casazza.
From the review of Henry T. Parker in the Boston Evening Transcript, dated November 18, 1927
In all these things, with no sparing, Norma has been brought, as the French say, to the point. Mr. Urban does well with his Druidical forest, gnarled and ancient; with the abode of Norma now sunlit, again cavernous; with a temple outflung upon a jutting rock; with trees primeval and Roman columns intimidating. The moonlight of the first act was as serene as the course of "Casta Diva"; the hierarchical groupings composed with an equal illusion. The misty rendezvous of the tribe, the reddish temple, added color to the final confusions. While Mr. Lauri-Volpi is the very presence of the Roman Pollione and catched something of the spirit, he is more apt with the Puccinian declamation of Turandot than with the Bellinian melody of Norma. Bellini preferred the quill pen to the stub when he took ink from a crystal inkstand and set notes on music paper. Nor has Mme. Telva the musical flexibility that can regain an ancient style. As in La Vestale Miss Ponselle has recaptured it. Her semblance and carriage arrest the eye and stimulate imagination. She has learned to strike the attitudes and out-fling the gestures that were essential parts of "the grand style." She can sustain the long Bellinian melody, hold it serene and crystalline; give it depth and abundance, stir its sensibility and suggestion. She does not fall too short of the full-bodied, quasi-ecstatic ornament. She lacks only that infusion of exalted passion which was crown upon "the grand style" - in the final scene nearly gains it. An operatic past stands renewed in her operatic present. In these days there is no rarer feat in the theater.
Rosa Ponselle in the title role of Bellini's Norma.
Photograph by Herman Mishkin.
Rosa Ponselle in the title role of Bellini's Norma.
Photograph by Herman Mishkin.
Marion Telva as Adalgisa and
Rosa Ponselle in the title role of
Photograph by Herman Mishkin.
Marion Telva as Adalgisa in
Photograph by Herman Mishkin.
Giacomo Lauri-Volpi as Pollione in Bellini's Norma.
Photograph by Ortho.
Ezio Pinza as Oroveso in
Photograph by Herman Mishkin.