I came for this, of course. I wanted to experience the Norma at Salzburg for myself. Now Cecilia Bartoli is talking about taking it on the road, so look for it in a theater near you.
I saw Norma once with Sutherland and Horne in San Francisco. They mostly just stood around and sang. It was very beautiful, mind you, but it could have been a concert. Cecilia's Norma--what else can you call it?--is sort of the opposite. Norma is the leader, the sacred object, the chaste priestess, the leader of men, the leader for peace in a crowd of people who want war.
This is a modern dress production. My theory of modern dress holds here. Dressing the actors like people we know makes them feel to us like people we know, makes their loves and hates feel like our own.
Then their leader whom even her father loves and follows, turns out to have been living a lie. Instead of chastity, she reveals first to Adalgisa and later to everyone else that she has been the lover of the proconsul and has had two children by him. Once she knows that Norma has been with Pollione, Adalgisa wants nothing more to do with him and fades from the story. She's there mainly for duets.
In this production all the cuts are restored. The opera doesn't seem that long to me so it's hard to see why cuts were necessary. Orchestrally the bel canto was a period of transition. New instruments were invented and moved gradually into general use. Cecilia has chosen to move unambiguously back to an antique instrument ensemble.
Once she has found out the ugly truth about Adalgisa and Pollione, Norma considers killing everyone by turns--
first her children,
then the entire Roman army,
then Pollione whom her partisans have captured trying to kidnap Adalgisa,
and then finally herself.
She confesses. It is a role waiting to be discovered.
I felt that this production by Mosche Leiser and Patrice Caurier completely worked. Every concept was theatrically viable, involving, even jolting. "Guerra" shouted at us from the front of the stage was particularly thrilling.
Michele Pertusi as Norma's father Oroveso has sung with Cecilia since her early Cenerentola recording. He is always strong vocally and theatrically. Liliana Nikiteanu is another long time colleague of Cecilia's from the Zurich Opera. John Osborn appeared with her in Rossini's Otello. Only Rebeca Olvera is new. She is a member of the Zurich ensemble. They are a strong cast.
But this is Cecilia Bartoli's production, and it rises and falls with her. This marvelous theatrical concept requires Cecilia Bartoli to bring to success. She is attempting nothing less than the complete recreation of Anna Magnani, the passionate Italian actress. The result is more like Broadway than opera, because the emphasis shifts to the action, and no one sings dramatic recitative better than Cecilia. The strength of characterization is powerful well beyond the normal confines of opera, but vocally it is less than a perfect fit for her.
The character of Norma disintegrates into drunkenness at one point. At the end Pollione calls her a "sublime woman." Yes. I can say nothing more.