[Met Performance] CID:266000
Norma {118} Metropolitan Opera House: 09/21/1981.

(Opening Night {97}
Anthony A. Bliss, General Manager

Metropolitan Opera House
September 21, 1981
Revised production
Opening Night {97}

Anthony A. Bliss, General Manager

NORMA {118}
Bellini-F. Romani

Norma...................Renata Scotto
Pollione................Plácido Domingo
Adalgisa................Tatiana Troyanos
Oroveso.................Bonaldo Giaiotti
Flavio..................Dana Talley
Clotilde................Therese Brandson

Conductor...............James Levine

Stage Director..........Fabrizio Melano
Designer................Desmond Heeley
Lighting designer.......Gil Wechsler

Norma received fifteen performances this season.

[Heeley and Melano made many revisions in this staging, originated in 1970 by Heeley and Deiber. None of Deiber's direction was retained.]

Review of Andrew Porter in the New Yorker

It was unwise of the Metropolitan Opera to open the season with Bellini's "Norma" without having engaged a soprano equipped to meet the challenges of the leading part. Renata Scotto essayed it, and she came to grief. During the last decade, she has undertaken the tremendous role several times- in Turin, Palermo, Cincinnati, Houston, Philadelphia, Florence, and Vienna - but she had not sung it before in New York. Nature endowed Miss Scotto with a delightful lyric soprano. She made her London debut in 1956, singing as a promising and pretty Mimi, Violetta, Adina, Lucia, and Donna Elvira as one could hope to hear. With careful nurture, voices grow. Nine years later, Miss Scotto reached the Met as a bewitching Butterfly. But soon thereafter she began to move into a still heavier repertory and to gain force at the cost of freshness, purity of timbre, and evenness of dynamic flow. In 1972, I praised in these pages the dramatic force she brought to a Carnegie Hall "Lombardi," but feared lest "artistic ambition lead her to punish that beautiful voice."

Various paths lead to the Norma summit. The opera's seconder donna, Adalgisa, was evidently conceived by Bellini for what we might call a soprano d'agilita (although in his day there was less categorizing: Amina, in "La Sonnambula," and Norma were composed for the same singer, Giuditta Pasta). His first Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, soon became a famous Norma. Giuseppina Strepponi, later Verdi's wife, sang Adalgisa in 1835 and Norma the following year. The great Lilli Lehmann, the Met's first Norma, sang the comprimaria role of Clotilde, Norma's handmaid, in her early Prague seasons (1866-68) and then Adalgisa before - having mastered Donna Anna, Beethoven's Leonore, and Isolde - she felt herself ready to tackle Norma, a role she deemed "ten times as exacting as Leonore." In our day, Joan Sutherland has sung both Clotilde and Norma, bypassing Adalgisa; mezzo-sopranos have long since appropriated that role (which in the early years of the phonograph we find recorded by Lakmés, Gildas), and at least two of them - Shirley Verrett and, notably, Grace Bumbry - have made the ascent to Norma. But Normas are not easily found. An essay in the opening-night program recalls that the first eight decades of Met history produced only five - Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna, Zinka Milanov, and Maria Callas. Thirty-five years elapsed between Lehmann's Norma and Ponselle's, and it was only in her tenth Met season that Ponselle undertook the part. After Ponselle, Kirsten Flagstad learned it but decided against singing it; Dusolina Giannini took it as far as a dress rehearsal and then withdrew. In the past Met decade, however, there have been six different Normas, and each of them has had something to offer. We should not conclude that heroines qualified to don the druidess's mantle have suddenly become abundant. Richard Bonynge, introducing Miss Sutherland's recording of the opera, summarized the role's requirements as "the greatest dramatic ability, superhuman emotional resources, the greatest bel-canto technique, a voice of quality and size, and I dare say many more attributes as well." And Ester Mazzoleni, a celebrated Norma of the nineteen-tens and twenties, remarked in a 1977 Opera News interview:

"I simply cannot understand what is happening nowadays. They all sing Norma - the coloraturas like Deutekom, Sutherland, and Sills, the lyrics like Scotto and Cioni, the spintos like Caballé, whom I admire in certain roles very much. But how can they do justice to this terrifying score? It is a travesty of what Bellini wrote, and the audience takes a lot of punishment."

The Met audience did. Miss Scotto is a serious and determined artist. If will alone could have driven her voice through the music, it would evidently have done so. But "Casta Diva" was a disaster. Sustained notes were often unsteady. The repeated A's at the climax lurched over, both times, into a sharp and strident B-flat, a curdled scream. The descending scales of the cabaletta were slithers. At coloratura passages she grabbed - and missed. By intention, the performance was powerful, earnest, and never perfunctory; Miss Scotto plainly does not share Beverly Sills' opinion, set out in her autobiography, "Bubbles," that "Norma is not a very difficult role" and that "there are some lines ... that always make me want to giggle." Miss Scotto was strongest in fierce declamatory recitative, as in the exchanges with Adalgisa before "Mira, o Norma." In passages of sustained melodic forcefulness, she pushed her voice to its limits. There was nothing in reserve to compass changes of color; everything was delivered in one hard, clear, high-pressure tone. Elsewhere, there were soft, gentle, floating notes, and some of them were beautiful. But, through either miscalculation or technical trouble, the "thread of voice" - a necessary weapon in any Norma's armory - was not evenly spun, and important statements faded in and out of audibility. Estimates of Miss Scotto's acting differ. The dear, bright little bundle of earlier days has acquired a grand manner that sits oddly on her small frame. I tend to admire it. She does everything so confidently. But I see why some people think it slips into the absurd.

Adalgisa was Tatiana Troyanos - a new Met assumption, though she sang the part with Caballé at La Scala four years ago. It lies high for her; the peak notes were reached, but they were pretty raw. She is a gauche actress. There is a rich sound to her voice. I wish she would essay the sustained A-flat of the phrase "lo l'obbliai" with the "messa di voce assai lunges" that Bellini asks for, instead of just belting it out. Placido Domingo recorded the part of Pollione in 1973, with Caballé, but he has waited eight years to bring it to the stage. He began badly, blaring out the conversational remarks to his friend Flavius as if he were an Othello embarking on "Esultate!" The subsequent aria was rough and loud, though his tone was fine. In the duet with Adalgisa, he seemed to have overlooked the instruction "con tutta la tenerezza." In a plain, blunt way, however, he offered a passable performance. Bonaldo Giaiotti's Oroveso was passable, too, provided one didn't look for the nobility and grandeur with which the role can be invested.

No one seemed very much interested in anyone else, and the drama dragged. If Miss Scotto's technical execution was faulty, the others lacked delicacy, refinement - the individual touches, vocal and dramatic, by which imaginative singers bring Bellini's opera to life. The approach of the conductor, James Levine, did not encourage them to finesse. He laid out foursquare metronomic rhythms. He was energetic and assured, and less crude than in his 1973 recording (with Sills as its heroine), but he showed almost no feeling for sensitive, flexible shaping of Bellini's melodies. The staging, by Fabrizio Melano, was plain and for the most part inoffensive. But without batting an eyelid the chorus heard the news that its priestess had broken her vows and betrayed her country. A spread-eagled sacrificial victim dominating the first scene struck a false note. Desmond Heeley had revised his scenery, but not sufficiently in accordance with the requirements of the plot. There was no sacred oak for Norma to cull mistletoe from. (They brought her a pre-cut bunch.) There was no bronze shield for her to strike. (She gestured toward a gong in the sky.) Two of the prescribed settings - the "luogo solitario" and the "tempio d'Irminsul" - are dispensed with; both scenes were played back in the "foresta sacra" of the [first act].

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