BELLINI:  Norma
Maria Callas, soprano (Norma), Franco Corelli, tenor (Pollione), Elena Nicolai, mezzo-soprano (Adalgisa), Boris Christoff, bass (Oroveso), Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Verdi di Trieste, Antonio Votto, conductor (performance of  November 19, 1953).
Instituto Discografico Italiano IDIS 6390/91 (2 Discs). (F) (AAD?) TT: 2:29:51
 

What a frustrating release! On the positive side, this 1953 Trieste Norma features a quartet of superb singers, all in stunning voice. Conductor Antonio Votto directs a performance that finds just the right balance between a propulsive forward momentum and an ebb and flow that allows the singers to make their musical and dramatic points.

On the negative side the recording—derived it seems, from one or more transcriptions of a radio broadcast—ranges from barely acceptable to abysmal. At its best the sound offers reasonable clarity and presence, although no one would mistake it for a studio recording of the period. But all too frequently, the sound is marred by pitch fluctuation, dropout, static, and, occasionally, missing bars of music. If you cannot tolerate performances that feature this kind of "vintage" sound, read no further.

Those who are a bit more adventurous might well find this Norma of great interest. Norma was, of course, one of Maria Callas's signature roles. The Greek-American soprano's powerful voice, remarkable coloratura facility, and extraordinary theatrical gifts made her one of the greatest exponents of this most demanding of soprano roles. Fortunately Callas made two commercial recordings of Norma for EMI (1954 and 1960). There are several issues of "live" performances as well.

On this occasion Callas is in absolutely stunning voice. There is none of the wobble in the upper register that would become more pervasive toward the latter part of her career (and certainly evident in the 1960 studio recording). Indeed, the voice rises with security and confidence all the way to high "D". And she has the technical mastery to give full measure to both the lyric and dramatic moments in the score. While it is true that Callas's interpretation of the Druid priestess became more subtle and nuanced over time, she is here already a sensitive and responsive interpreter. In fact, I think this Trieste performances offers one of the better confluences of vocal security and dramatic insight among the Callas Normas.

The Pollione is Franco Corelli, who also appears with Callas in the 1960 EMI recording. On each occasion he is superb, the embodiment of the heroic and passionate Roman. In both instances, he is in sterling voice,and demonstrates a real concern for shaping a long and supple bel canto vocal line. In 1953 Corelli's voice featured a more noticeable quick (but controlled) vibrato. Some may not like this quality of the earlier Corelli—the tenor himself admitted that he worked to eliminate his vibrato. I find Corelli's early performances quite compelling, very much in the tradition of earlier Italian heroic tenors like Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. In the Trieste performance Corelli avoids the high "C" in Pollione's aria, which he does take in the 1960 EMI studio recording.

Boris Christoff is a magnificent Oroveso. Like Corelli, he is quite successful at adapting his prodigious vocal gifts to Bellini's bel canto writing. Elena Nicolai is excellent as Adalgisa, passionate in her Act I confrontation with Corelli, and very sympathetic in her two great duets with Callas.

It's a pity that recorded sound on this release does not begin to do justice to the performance. As such, this Trieste Norma cannot compete with the two Callas studio recordings, both of which offer unique qualities that make them worth acquiring. Certainly the studio Normas should be supplemented by at least one in-performance recording. As a first choice, I would probably opt for the Dec. 7, 1955 La Scala performance (Gala), where Callas is joined by Mario del Monaco, Giulietta Simionato, and Nicola Zaccaria, again conducted by Votto. The performance is stunning, and the sound is far better than heard on the Trieste release.  But if you are a Callas fan, and are willing to tolerate some rather dreadful sonics, I think this Trieste Norma is worth hearing. But most definitely, this is a case of caveat emptor.

K.M. (March 2003)