[Met Performance] CID:136360
Norma {42} Metropolitan Opera House: 12/29/1943.


Metropolitan Opera House
December 29, 1943

NORMA {42}
Bellini-F. Romani

Norma...................Zinka Milanov
Pollione................Frederick Jagel
Adalgisa................Bruna Castagna
Oroveso.................Norman Cordon
Flavio..................Alessio De Paolis
Clotilde................Thelma Votipka

Conductor...............Cesare Sodero

Director................Lothar Wallerstein
Designer................Joseph Urban

Norma received five performances this season.

Review of Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune

Melodious Grandeurs

Bellini's "Norma" is one of the greatest pieces of musical composition by any standard. Mozart himself never wrote anything more gravely melodious. Neither Verdi nor Wagner ever kept the dignity and sweetness of a tragic story so intact; even Handel wrote less exigently and less skillfully for the human voice. To give the work at all in these parlous times, when voices are not what they used to be, is an act of courage on the part of any management. To have given it presentably as the Metropolitan Opera Company did last night is an achievement worthy of our gratitude. The weaknesses of the performance were no greater than what we have become accustomed to in the renderings of other masterpieces of musical theater, and they were certainly less shocking than the carelessness of execution that so often nowadays mar the execution of many an easier piece.

Bruna Castagna gave the finest vocal performance of the evening. She not only sang with all beauty and brilliance but she gave a support to the other artists in the concerted numbers that built these pieces into something more seriously musical, more satisfactory to the ear than anything the others did without here. Her rhythm, her pitch, and above all, her sound vocal placement solidified the performance, gave it security and professional style.

Zinka Milanov profited greatly by this collaboration. Alone, Miss Milanov lacks rhythm and concentration. Though gifted by nature with one of the most beautiful lyric soprano voices in the world, she is far from being a completely trained vocalist. When she sings loud she is likely to lose both pitch and placement. Rapid scales and strong declamatory passages end more than not in a similar confusion. She has a mannerism, too, of titling her head to one side that seems to injure her emission. When she keeps her neck straight and doesn't try to express emotion, which she does unconvincingly, she sounds like Melba. That is what she did when she sang with Miss Castagna. At other times she took refuge far too often in crooning. She croons prettily, superbly, if you like. But crooning is not the basic style for Bellini, who expected people to sing with resonance at all the levels of loudness.

Cesare Sodero conducted the overture, the orchestral interludes and the concerted pieces with fine vigor and all delicacy. He really gave a beautiful reading when nobody sang solo. Whenever anybody did, he merely played an accompaniment; and the opera dragged. It is a great mistake to let singers take hold of an opera. Mr. Sodero misses being a notable conductor through this very complaisance toward soloists. That is why the pacing of every act last night went to pieces.

Review of Oscar Thompson in the Sun

Bellini's "Norma" Revived

Milanov, Castagna, Jagel and Cordon in Metropolitan Cast - Sodero Conducts

Bellini's "Norma" is still one of the most famous Italian operas. New Yorkers began admiring it more than a century ago when Grisi and Mario made history when they opened the old Academy of Music in Maretzek's production in 1854. But until last night it had figured in only seven of the Metropolitan's fifty-eight past seasons. The current revival changes that to eight in fifty-nine.

The Metropolitan has known but four Normas, including Zinka Milanov, the one we have with us now. The first was Lilli Lehmann, who sang this part in just two performances of the opera in the season of 1891-92. The second was Rosa Ponselle, who first essayed it thirty-five years later and continued singing it through the season of 1931-32. Six years latter Gina Cigna essayed the role and her performances of it were carried over into a second season. She was the Norma of the last previous presentation at the Metropolitan on January 3, 1938.

In all there had been but twenty-six performances before that of last night, and all but seven of these were in the four seasons of the Ponselle revival, which was first presented on November 16, 1927. There had been performances by the Chicago Company with Rosa Raisa as the high priestess, half a dozen years earlier, but the wait of thirty-five years after the last of Lilli Lehmann's performances was one of the longest in the Metropolitan's history, so far as the active repertory is concerned.

Casts of Two Revivals

Besides Gina Cigna, the cast of January 3, 1938 included Giovanni Martinelli as Pollione, Ezio Pinza as Oroveso, Bruna Castagna as Adalgisa, Thelma Votipka as Clothilde, and Giovanni Paltrinieri as Flavio. Ettore Panizza conducted. At one of the performances of that revival Mr. Martinalli's sleeve caught in the tresses of Adalgisa and shorn of her wig, Miss Castagna finished the second act wearing her own hair.

Last night, the Pollione was Frederick Jagel, who had sung in some of the Ponselle performances. Oroveso was in the keeping of Norman Cordon and the small part of Flavio was intrusted to Alessio de Paolis. Mme. Castagna and Miss Votipka were cast as before. There was no wig strung, however. Cesare Sodero conducted and Lothar Wallenstein was the stage director.

"Norma" is many things to many singers and some conductors. We have never heard it under Toscanini - which may mean that we have never heard it at all. Orchestrally, last night's performance was well intentioned and generally competent. But it left the weaknesses of Bellini's score more exposed than its virtues. The little march tunes were little march tunes. The overture and the opening of the opera were what most conductors make of them They did not glow as they did under Tullio Serafin.

Heard at its best, much of the music of "Norma" has a wistful nostalgic charm. It is not so much languishing, as retreating, in its appeal. It is clearly the music of another day and of a kind that no one will ever write again. It is later than Mozart's music, of course, but more remote from our present musical acceptances. Last night much of it was merely dull. It lacked the saving grace of style. The recitatives plodded - yet they have been known to sound like Gluck.

"Casta Diva" Well Sung

"Casta diva" remains one of the finest inspirations of all opera. Mme. Milanov sang the aria very well last night, smoothly and sympathetically in the half voice. But the succeeding allegro, with its taxing bravura, had little of the traditional sparkle and elan. Mme. Milanov sang simplified cadenzas and there was some generous cutting. Though she dealt conscientiously with florid phrases, the results betrayed the labor of her efforts. Her treatment of the final scene was more consistently praiseworthy than all that had preceded it. It had vocal worth and dramatic illusion.

Mme. Castagna's singing as Adalgisa was more consistently poised and better focused, though some of her lower phrases were unnecessarily chesty and lachrymose. As Norma's confidant Miss Votipka betrayed no confidence; she just sang the few notes the composer allowed her.

Some of the lyricism seems to have gone out of the voice, or at least the style, of Frederick Jagel since he last bodied forth as Roman proconsul. He was most successful when he was given opportunity to wax stentorian. He did not shout however, as Lauri-Volpi did in Ponselle's time. He sang. The trio of the second act - "Oh, di qual sei tu vittima" - was not well organized and the voices did not harmonize as they should. "Mira, o Norma" was better balanced, though not impeccable in its bravura details, and the audience bestowed its approval without reserve on Mmes. Milanov and Castagna.

High priests are naturals for Norman Cordon, whose Arch Druid loomed impartially above Briton and Roman alike. There was something less than the desired amplitude of voice, however, in his "Ite sui colle o Druidi" and again in "Ah del Tebro," in both of which he had the well-trained and voluminous competition of Giacomo Spadoni's choristers. They distinguished themselves in the final scene. Joseph Urban's well-remembered sets were eye-filling and Mr. Wallenstein's processions gave the revival something of spectacle.

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