ok, ok let's get it outta the way:
Giuditta Pasta, Giuseppina Ronzi De Begnis, Maria Malibran, Giulia Grisi, Antonietta Fricci, Jenny Lind, Teresa Tietjens, Maria Vilda, Euphrosyne Parepa, Maria Peri, Eugenia Burzio, Giannina Russ, Ester Mazzoleni, Bianca Scacciati, Gina Cigna, Maria Caniglia, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland, & Montserrat Caballé.
[not to mention Eleanor Roosevelt, Kate Summers Stratton, Edna Garrett, Dolly Parton, Golda Meir, Paris Hilton, Angela Merkel, & ur mom.]
Now that the list of "All The Divas In The Universe Who Have Done The Best Norma Evar" (And Remember: UR Favorite Norma Sucks) is more or less out there (feel free to add whomever you want to the list), let's keep that garlic wreath handy to exorcise the various "Ghosts Of Normas Past" and let's move on to last night's Norma at Teatro Comunale di Bologna.
Opera Chic tackled the high-drama night, Daniela Dessì's first Norma, decked out in the girl equivalent of a bulletproof vest -- a vintage Chanel black cashmere shell, Diane von Furstenberg black puff skirt (with pockets...omg how we <3 that skirt!!). With classic Valentino black Mary Janes and the trusty midollino vintage Gucci bag. A shiny black Fay windbreaker to protect us from the naughty, chilly weather (it's still mild, fall-like weather around here, no summer for Italy yet).
The big drama of the night of course is that Norma is the Mount Everest for sopranos, and it's a merciless, merciless role that offers one very thin air to breathe, if at all -- it puts your voice (and your acting skills) under a microscope and shines a huge spotlight and then examines everything, blowing-up every problem, every blemish up like 10x -- coloratura, firm tops, phrasing, agility, and of course, teh powah. All in a role that's incredibly demanding emotionally, too. We won't even get into Bellini's reckless disregard for the physical limitations of the human vocal range and his own near-sadistic score markings: "con tutta la forza"; "con tutta la passione"; "così forte che scoppia una vena nel collo" -- omg lol well, we actually invented that last one, which translates in Italian as, "So loud as to bust a vein in your neck" -- but, I swear, the rest are indeed true.
Not to mention that the part of Norma is, in fact, quite low, with incredibly tough acuti. And every difficult moment of Bellini's style is there, blown up the the extreme.
It's unsurprising that Dessì -- wisely, we think -- waited until she was fifty-years-old to tackle the monstah (she mentioned in an interview in the Italian press the need for "vocal and emotional stability" if you hope to do Norma, that she called "la opera delle opere", the "opera of operas", justice).
Dessì won the game, yes -- not without difficulty, tho'...because OC had witnessed her sing effortlessly through other roles -- singing Adriana Lecouvreur, Manon Lescaut, & Tosca, which are roles that she owns completely, much more than other sopranos with bigger brand names and fatter record contracts could even dream about-- and we she is certainly the best Cio Cio San of the last 15 years, easily, at least since Madame Kabaivanska retired Butterfly from her repertory.
But her Norma, while very good, even excellent at times, did not not achieve anything like the effortlessness of her marquee roles. We never thought we'd see la Dessì sweat under her costume, but we did. Oh my! The result -- cell-phone sabotaged "Casta Diva" included (see post below) -- was vocally convincing and emotionally very touching last night (hers is a heartbroken, betrayed Norma who behaves with quiet dignity, not exactly the unhinged diva other sopranos have attempted in a vain attempt to portray you know who, la Maria) but this is a role that may be too taxing for anybody to do so often. She didn't really push only because she has all the experience and the technique to negotiate the hairpin turns of the role.
Obviously, to speak of the recent Normas Past, we all heard the Guleghina disaster and Fleming admitted she coulnd't do it in the unforeseeable future, and the sheer thought of Netrebko (whom we otherwise really, really like) doing a Norma production sends us clutching our cans of Citrosodina; La Ceci Bartoli is a mezzo who only did "Casta Diva" in the studio as, more or less, a vanity project, and is too smart to do more than that; Mariella Devia herself, the goddess of a flawless singing technique, one of the most roundly, well-prepared sopranos of recorded history, can do choice Norma bits in concert, but the whole enchilada -- even with the traditional cuts of da capos, etc -- on stage is a wilder, untamed beast.
And last night was only Dessì's absolute debut, she'll certainly grow more into the role -- but she avoided all the horrible traps, and ended up victorious.
(above: lobby of Teatro Comunale di Bologna)
Of Dessì's Pollione, super-sweet boyfriend Fabio Armiliato, a wonderful tenor with a seriously cool repertoire, we only have good things to say -- he did push a bit too hard at times, but in tune with the romantic, heart-broken Norma, he gave the interesting portrait of a puppyish, if immature, Pollione -- someone you can easily believe falling for both women, more an indecisive romantic than a thuggish cad (Opera Chic has already admitted last night in her instant teaser review that she prefers her Pollione more thuggish, but maybe it's just her).
As Adalgisa, we rilly rilly liked American mezzo Kate Aldrich so much we're posting about her tomorrow separately, to give her the space she deserves, because this is Dessì's post -- she earned the right, in a way.
Daniela & Fabio played on their home turf, with a very loving audience, so their repeated ovations must be considered in the light of that, too, but there is no doubt that they gave us a beautiful night of singing and acting, without silly fears of the ghosts of the past, because they know that history is now, and even the biggest fan (Dessì has a huge Callas poster hung in her own living room) must know that the world, here & now, belongs to the living.
We don't know whether conductor Evelino Pidò opted for the traditional cuts of Bellini's score or this was an agreement with the singers (even a ruthless "come scritto" conductor such as Riccardo Muti opted for the cuts in his 1994 Norma at Maggio Musicale, btw, for the record -- Opera Chic, when it comes to Norma and many other things, is a Marinuzzi girl).
No, the real problem we had with Pidò's work is that he should have known that in a very small theater such as Bologna, in a Bellini score, the brass drowns out the strings incredibly quick, and even if you cannot mute the brass (the great, unsung Bruno Campanella even does away with trumpets and trombones in Capuleti), you really have to be more careful than he was -- the too-brassy moments ruined so much of his otherwise nice, stable work. And the pacing must also be controlled with incredible care -- the occasional, too-sudden increases in speed should have been handled with more care. To be blunt: if his orchestra couldn't adhere to his markings, he should have relented instead of slightly (but audibly) ruining the phrasing on so many occasions -- you go to the opera with the orchestra you have, not with the orchestra you *wish* you had.
We loved -- unlike some other spectators -- the scenery, which were paintings by the late Mario Schifano. The originals had burned down with Teatro Petruzzelli back in the 1990s (the irony, Norma sets that burn down) so these were replicas from the maestro's original sketches. But the staging by Federico Tiezzi was incredibly static, the neon tree in Act I was just lame and stingy, and some of the sets looked like they had been recycled from some other production (we did like the Romans in Napoleonic uniform and the white, 2001 Kubrickian effect of Norma's 18th Century sparse furniture...but the otherwise adorable, big-haired kids playing with a toy train, not so much).
At the end of the taxing night, racing home towards Milan, realizing that as tired as OC was from the long drive, while suffering through the unseasonably chilly air, there was no way anyone could have been half as exhausted as la Dessì...who ran like the Iron Man marathon equivalent of a soprano role. Since Norma is like the wii of the opera world, OC will be perfectly content playing with her xbox & ps3 for the next decade.
(Above: a shot of balconies in Balonies)