Each week, the crew from Saturday Afternoon at the Opera chooses a hot new opera release that you need to know about. Here's your opera spotlight for June 22, 2013.

Album: Norma.

Artists: Cecilia Bartoli, Sumi Jo, John Osborn, Orchestra la Scintilla, conducted by Giovanni Antonini.

Repertoire: Bellini's bel canto masterpiece, Norma.

Label: Decca.

A controversial release, for sure, this Norma stars mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli singing a role typically reserved for a lirico-spinto soprano. A highlight of the score, Norma's “Casta Diva" is one of the standout arias of the bel canto tradition, sung by sopranos whose repertoire often includes heavy roles like Puccini's Turandot, Verdi's Aida, even Wagner's Isolde.

So it comes as a surprise to hear Bartoli — a specialist in baroque opera and florid Rossini roles, and a mezzo to boot — sing not only that demanding aria, but the full role as well.

LISTEN

"Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma
Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano
Orchestra la Scintilla, dir. Giovanni Antonini 


How did she do it? First, she hired an orchestra best known as an early music band. Orchestra la Scintilla is the Zurich Opera house band whenever baroque and classical operas are performed. No thin or diluted sound here, however. They are in full form and sound splendid, but they do play at a slightly lower pitch than modern-instrument orchestras (A430, to be exact), and that’s a first step toward making the role more approachable for mezzo Bartoli.

Second, the musicians are working from a new critical edition of the score. The title role was originally written for the leading singer of the time, Giuditta Pasta, who was by all accounts a mezzo with some splendid high notes. Derived from the original manuscript, which is described as a “battlefield,” the resulting critical edition brings Norma's music into a lower register. That also helps Bartoli, and the result is a new idea of what Norma can be and what it can sound like.

Bartoli writes an opening essay in the CD booklet outlining her reasons for singing the role, and it’s pretty convincing. She says today's audiences have become increasingly obsessed with both volume and register in opera performances, resulting in high, shrill singing.

“Voices are consequently becoming damaged with increasing frequency, and an ultimately vulnerable career cut short,” she writes.

This is not your normal Norma — we could call it AbNorma — and while it’s a different approach to an operatic war horse, there’s a lot to be said in favour of this performance. Bartoli's singing is rich with emotion; every note is expressive.

What do you think about this new, controversial take on Bellini's Norma? Let us know in the comments below.

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posted by Matthew McFarlane on Jun 20, 2013