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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
This recording, first published in November 1954 in theUnited States by Angel and in Britain by Columbia, andmade at the end of April and beginning of May, was thesecond in the series under the aegis of La Scala, Milan,with its orchestra and chorus. Like the first, anotherBellini opera, I Puritani, it was not made at the operahouse but at Cinema Metropol; the season was stillgoing on, and Tebaldi was singing Tosca.
Norma is the only bel canto opera to have beengiven almost continuously through the years at majortheatres in Italy, and under Italian sway in the UnitedStates and Britain, since its first performance at LaScala, Milan, in 1831. In the days before recording therewas a tradition of nineteenth-century Normas, includingits creator Giuditta Pasta, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis,Maria Malibran, Giulia Grisi, Jenny Lind, AntoniettaFricci, Teresa Tietjens, Maria Vilda, EuphrosyneParepa and Maria Peri. How their styles may havedeveloped, in response to the then ever-changingrepertory, we can only guess. By the first decades of thelast century recordings of the aria Casta Diva weremade by Eugenia Burzio (1872-1922) and GianninaRuss (1873-1951), both of whom undertook it at LaScala, Milan, and Ester Mazzoleni (1883-1982), whodid so at the San Carlo, Naples. Their singing is more animpression than an actual account of the notes, notperhaps because they could not have sung it moreaccurately but because they were trying to inform musicwhose style was by then old-fashioned with one bettersuiting their own time. Their tone is often overlyanguished with excessive recourse to vibrato at oddswith the basis of bel canto, a suave, shapely and limpidlegato, as we read in singing manuals like ManuelGarcia's L'art du chant (1847). By the second quarterof the twentieth century, when not only singers but theirteachers too were reared on verismo, Normas such asBianca Scacciati (1894-1948), Gina Cigna (1900-2001)and Maria Caniglia (1905-1979) all had big vibratoryvoices and used a vehement declamatory style betterfitting Ponchielli's La Gioconda composed 45 yearslater. Their principal concern was conveying the dramaand they were careless executing florid music,aspirating it and crashing vocal gears. The German LilliLehmann (1848-1929) and the American Rosa Ponselle(1897-1981) sang Norma more accurately (at least asrecorded) and enjoyed successes with it, but did so onlyoutside Italy and were not part of the tradition.
There are many demanding r?â??les in the sopranorepertory, but few more so than Norma, and certainlynone as rewarding. As well as voice it requires the twobasic constituents of a great soprano: an accomplishedtechnique so her musicianship can be sufficientlyresponsive. What makes Callas a great Norma is therange and variety of expression she is able to bring tothe music. As she shows from Norma's first recitative,Sediziose voci, if the voice is correctly trained, then shewill be able to bring all the necessary colour, nuanceand variety to the declamation. In the aria, Casta DivaCallas shapes the longest phrases with security andpoise as they ascend to repeated climactic B flats; wenote her subtle use of portamento and how she ismistress of messa di voce, the art that reflects thepulsating yet unbroken flow of the breath. Since it isnatural when the voice is correctly producedspontaneously it gives singing light and shade. The ariais a prayer to the moon so it is not too fanciful to hear inthe accuracy of Callas's downward chromatic runs howBellini composes a musical metaphor for the moonlightslanting through the leaves of the oak tree. Garcia states'it retains the gravity of the legato style but continuallychanges by borrowing from the florid style, juxtaposingsustained notes, with brilliant passages'. Callas showsthis off to perfection in her singing of the cabaletta, Ah!bello a me ritorna, when she sweeps up from middle Dto high A in one breath with the most adept use ofportamento and then lets her voice fall again in apassage of descending semi-quavers like somearticulate cello. No such effect is attempted before onrecords of Celestina Boninsegna (1877-1947), Russ,Ponselle or Rosa Ralsa (1893-1963), nor since onrecords of Sutherland, Caballe, Scotto or Sills, yet whenwe read the score phrase-markings indicate it. As Callasherself was always stressing, everything she sang was inthe score, and so it was too, but the point is howcompletely she could sing it.
In the first act duet, Ah! Si, fa, core, there is thelimpid tone she employs with Adalgisa in theconsolatory passages, then, as her suspicions arearoused, 'Roma! ed ?â?¿?', how she deploys different vocalregisters to colour her tone. In 'Ah! non tremare', thefirmly marked rhythm she uses to express indignation;and in, 'trema per te, fellon', how furiously andaccurately she accelerates through the rapid downwardroulades before leaping from F at the bottom of thestave more than an octave and a half to high C. In thelast act, as she rages against Pollione, 'Si sovr'essi alzarla punta' through to 'Mi poss'io dimenticar' howperfectly she realises Bellini's instruction a piacereabbandonandosi; the rhythm becomes freer until, at theend, the accompaniment almost disappears. Shereminds us of the difference between, as Garciaexplains, 'accelerando and rallentando which requirethat the accompaniment and voice are together and slowdown or speed up the music as a unity, and temporubato, which accords the liberty only to the voice'. Atthe beginning of the finale, Qual cor tradesti howtelling is her execution of three groups of semi-quaverson the words 'Tu sei con me', 'In vita e in morte' and'Sar?â?? con te'. Then, in the final scene, Deh! Non volerlivittime, on the repeated triplets, 'abbi di lor', each timeshe utters them more intensely until eventually theybecome plaintive devices, which she accomplishesmusically without disrupting the legato - easier saidthan sung. By so doing she shows it is through thesinging, that Norma works its magic. It is here in thefinal scene that Bellini rises to the greatest heights ofmusical invention, one without parallel - pace Verdi - inItalian opera.
The mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani (1903-1974) wasa Neapolitan. A typical verismo singer, possessor of oneof the most powerful dramatic voices of her day, shebegan her career at the top in February 1925 at the ageof 21 at the San Carlo, Naples, as Amneris. In that firstseason alone she sang Maddalena in Rigoletto,Glorianda in Marinuzzi's Jacquerie, Meg in Falstaffand Adalgisa. In only six years her repertory came toinclude Azucena, the Principessa in AdrianaLecouvreur, Santuzza, Leonora in La favorita, Laura inLa Gioconda, Orfeo, Eboli in Don Carlo, Dalila inSansone e Dalila, Ulrica, Preziosilla in La forza deldestino, Rubria in Boito's Nerone and La gran vestale inSpontini's La vestale, as well as several Wagner r?â??les,Gutruna in Il crepuscolo degli dei, Brangania inTristano and Ortruda in Lohengrin. She appeared at allthe leading Italian opera houses, as well as CoventGarden, London, the Colon, Buenos Aires, SanFrancisco Opera and the Lyric Chicago (though not theMet). When she made this recording, although her voiceremains powerful, inevitably time has rubbed off thebloom and she sounds her age. Unfortunately Normaaddresses Adalgisa as 'giovinetta' (little girl), forBellini wrote Adalgisa for a lyric soprano, not adramatic mezzo. Stignani sounds fine in 1939 and 1946in complete HMV recordings of the Verdi Requiem andAida with Gigli.
Mario Filippeschi (1907-1979) began studying theclarinet, but not until 1937 at Busseto did he make hisfirst appearances as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoorand the Duke in Rigoletto. His was a good size typicalItalian tenor with firm high notes. He sang throughoutItaly, at the San Carlo, Naples, La Scala, Milan,Comunale Florence and the Rome Opera, and travelledto the Colon