Norma (1978)

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Caballé, Cossotto, Lavirgen, Vinco; García Asensio. In Italian, no subtitles. (1978). 171m. Color.

William Ashbrook, reviewing in The Opera Quarterly

“My personal preference among this quartet of Normas is the 1978 Caballé performance. Here Caballé is formidable, in every sense, pouring forth streams of seamless cantilena and acting with a focus that she did not always achieve. In the final scene, when Norma summons her Gauls to war, Caballé does not strike the gong a mere three symbolic strokes but keeps whacking it until the chorus arrives.

“This time the Adalgisa is Fiorenza Cossotto, in fine fettle, homogeneous of voice, and presenting a rather flirtatious demeanor–a plausible interpretation of the young priestess’s dilemma. The Pollione is Pedro Lavirgen, raw but earnest, and a swooper at notes. Ivo Vinco is impassively sonorous, even in the second finale. Enrique Maria Asensio keeps things moving right along and has sensible notions of appropriate dynamic levels. Instead of the heaped boulders and peculiar vegetation that represent Druidic Gaul in the other stagings, here we have rather stark, abstract sets–but period costumes–a solution that proves nonobtrustive, at least, in a work that depends so much on vocal adoitness. The camera work, only occasionally unsteady, features plenty of close-ups.

“The great benison each of the versions does give us is the charitable genius of Vincenzo Bellini.”

Throughout most of her career Caballé has sung meltingly and endearingly, but she has not been perfervid. In this little-known Norma from 1978 she is ablaze. In “In mia man” she is more ferocious than Callas. Indeed, she is vocally violent to the point that one fears for her larynx–and yet she recovers for a heart-stoppingly beautiful “Son io!”

Her most famous Norma is from 1974, in which she sings with her all-purpose velvety sound. It’s too soft-textured for such passages as “scorran tormenti!”

In the 1978 performance her voice has both more substance and more bite. She doesn’t invariably round or darken the sound but instead in some dramatic moments finds colors for the part’s specific emotions. She spits out some recitatives. Sometimes she puts a cutting edge on the sound, to express Norma’s frenzied rage.

If you compare the performances passage by passage you find that in ’78 she has much more passion and, in particular, a fury that eluded her in ’74. It’s as if she couldn’t quite bring herself to ignite then. In ’78 she even beats the gong, before “Guerra! guerra!” with more vigor. Her acting and facial expressions are more resolute and commanding. Somehow she manages to be frenzied and dignified at the same time.

In ’74 she lightens her voice considerably for florid passages, which is all very well for Rossini but too undramatic for Bellini. The part abounds in viscerally telling low-lying utterances, but she sings them with little chest resonance. (According to reviews, Giuditta Pasta, the first Norma, used chest copiously.) In ’78 her voice has more thrust and core in some florid passages. And she uses chest resonance as high as F at the bottom of the staff. In ’74 she mostly vocalizes the words. In ’78 she feels them.

Because of the mix of her usual vocal beauty with all this extra intensity, this is my favorite Caballé performance. (I prefer it to her breakthrough, Carnegie Hall Lucrezia Borgia, in 1965.)

The other performers also satisfy the viscera. Lavirgen and Vinco have temperament. Cossotto is a soprano-like Adalgisa (The role originally was written for soprano.)–Stefan Zucker