ecause of the sheer length of the title role, Norma makes for heavy listening unless the soprano offers wide interpretive variety. Beverly Sills is more of a dramatic soprano than she used to be, and though she refrains from pushing for chesty tones, she achieves impressive results. Norma emerges as a public figure of authority, then as a compassionate but desperate friend, lover and mother. If one does not demand the heavy shadings of a Callas or the trenchant penetration of a Gina Cigna, this is a first-class dramatic portrayal. Vocally, Miss Sills is sometimes ready to sacrifice pure or steady tone to make a point, but for the most part her work is even, with beautifully sustained line.
Adalgisa poses no severe problems to Shirley Verrett, who combines alertness of attack with enough tonal warmth to outline the sympathetic but willful girl. Like Miss Sills, she sings a few sustained notes (especially top ones) at full stretch, but the emotional content of the libretto hardly justifies total composure.
Enrico Di Giuseppe’s light, high tenor is probably closer to what Bellini expected than the dramatic or even spinto tenors who often sing Pollione. Even if its timbre is right, though, Di Giuseppe’s voice shows strain in declamatory moments, and his lower notes lack support. When the music sits right for him, as in “Meco all’altar di Venere,” his work is uncommonly graceful. For Oroveso, Bellini had in mind a great, rolling bass sound, like Rossini’s Mose or Verdi’s Zaccaria in Nabucco. Paul Plishka has not a voice of this size, but his sense of style is impeccable, with the right mixture of majesty and irascibility.
It would be a pleasure to report that James Levine’s conducting of Norma is in a class with his early Verdi, but it hasn’t yet reached that degree of unity. What it does have from time to time is dramatic sweep-the most since Panizza led Norma at the Met-and a high level of sensitivity where vocal shaping is concerned, which in this opera is everywhere. Aware of the latent stodginess in operas of this type, Levine sometimes hurries tempos too much for their own good: Oroveso’s cabaletta soon after Act I opens is more an allegro than an andante mosso, and the Druids’ march turns into a quickstep. On the other hand, Levine is too willing to go for a sostenuto at the expense of movement, notably in “Casta Diva” and “Mira, a Norma.” The singers have enough breath, but there isn’t enough flow.
A major contribution by Levine is his disregard of the corny traditional ritardandos that the late Tullio Serafin used to exaggerate to the point of parody. More questionable are his slowing down for the maggiore section of the overture; his decision not to reinstate this same music at the close of the “Guerra!” chorus; and his reluctance to press forward whenever the music offers a chance, as in the line “Ah! non sai quel che mi costi” in the Adalgisa-Pollione duet. It is the combination of hard-pressed tempo in some places and lack of urgency in others that makes his an uneven Norma. There are no cuts, not even of repeats, and Miss Sills takes “Casta Diva” in the optional higher key of G, with the duets in the original keys, giving Miss Verrett several high C’s. The custom of separating orchestral chords from the opening or dosing lines of recitative is perpetuated, again at the expense of forward impulse. Overemphasis on the chords themselves -they’re often ff rather than f-doesn’t restore the balance.
Though the sound of the review copy was tubby in fortissimos, with some patches of surface noise but few of pre echo, ABC is said to be placing improved pressings on the market. Having Plishka sing his usually omitted lines with the chorus would have added stereo depth to the big scenes, and the stage band in the Druids’ march makes little impact.