Saturday, December 17, 2005


I bought also the 1978 film of Montserrat Caballe’s Norma from the Bel Canto Society.

The character of Norma is one of the things that keeps this opera at the top of the bel canto repertoire. She is a powerful woman, the head of her Druid religion, but bound in this role to complete chastity. Instead, she has two sons by Pollione, the Roman consul. When she finds he is having an affair with Adalgisa, another priestess, she contemplates murdering his sons, like Medea, but decides instead to send them to her father. The opera ends with Norma and Pollione being burned alive, a particularly gruesome way to die.

The other thing that keeps us listening is the incredible vocal line that Bellini has composed. Phrasing “Casta diva” is one of the great tests for a soprano.

The role is defined for us today by the 1954 and 1962 recordings of Maria Callas. Caballe and Callas performed the same repertoire but were very different singers. The first difference is in the sound of their voices: Callas had a hardness in her tone which made it easy for her to bring intensity and drama into her characterizations, while Caballe with her large, beautiful instrument must work harder to get the right theatrical effect with her voice.

In this video Caballe shifts frequently into a heavy chest voice for effect. Callas in the same music can concentrate on the line and get all the drama she needs from her emotions without deliberately manipulating her tone. Of course, there are the Callas high notes in the later recording. Caballe’s voice is always beautiful throughout its range. I never feel that I mind the sound of Callas’ voice. It expresses what she wants to say.

Is it unfair to compare the two? The “Casta diva” on the Caballe biography video with the white robes blowing in the wind is better than this one, where she works very hard to bring drama into her characterization to the detriment of the overall sound. The sweetness of her character is also at odds with Norma's. The singing in Semiramide and Roberto Devereaux is more spectacular.

That said, Caballe comes as close as anyone has to Callas’ standard. I think if I was to pick just one video of the three for Caballe, it would be Roberto Devereaux, perhaps in the version from the bel canto society.

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