[Met Performance] CID:165130

Metropolitan Opera House, Tue, March 9, 1954

Norma (53)
Vincenzo Bellini | Felice Romani
Zinka Milanov

Gino Penno

Fedora Barbieri

Cesare Siepi

Paul Franke

Maria Leone

Fausto Cleva

Dino Yannopoulos

Set Designer
Charles Elson

Norma received five performances this season.
In revising the sets for Norma, Elson utilized elements from the previous production.

Review 1:

Review of Miles Kastendieck in The Christian Science Monitor

Bellini's "Norma" once more graces the stage of the Metropolitan. Revived after a decade, it comes as a refreshing experience within the general routine of repertory. Pure in line, somewhat thin in orchestration, and halting in continuity, the opera nevertheless so blends fragile and dramatic beauty that it rekindles a sense of joyous discovery on reacquaintance. Some musicians maintain that with a paucity of great voices today "Norma" should remain shelved. If this revival proved anything, it showed that such relegation would be entirely unwarranted. The performance was not an unqualified success vocally, but somehow it cohered. Halfway through it came alive and finished with enough dramatic strength to prove the worth of the opera all over again.

With new sets by Charles Elson and new stage direction by Dino Yannopoulos, the production is first class. Mr. Elson has sought to emphasize the Druid environment. His two sets have a definitely primitive accent. The scene in the Sacred Grove is appropriately mysterious and somber. The cave that is Norma's dwelling is suggestive of the elemental character of the story. Mr. Yannopoulos has been more successful in static pictorialization than in the movement of crowds.

Potentially the cast promised much more than materialized in performance. Zinka Milanov was the only member to have sung the work at the Metropolitan before. Her Norma embodied the essential characterization, though she appeared more the woman than the priestess. Vocally she was sufficiently uneven in the first two acts to bring dismay to the audience. Fortunately she recovered in the third and went on to sing most effectively in the last act. Nervousness may have accounted for her difficulties with the coloratura passages while elsewhere she sang quite beautifully, especially in her duets with Adalgisa.

Fedora Barbieri gave an impassioned performance as Adalgisa but encountered considerable insecurity in focusing her tones. Gino Penno brought ringing brilliance to his singing in the role of Pollione but has yet to learn finesse both in modulating his voice and in interpreting his role with a sense of style. The most satisfactory vocalism came from Cesare Siepi, whose Oroveso had the required dignity and sonority. The chorus proved only adequate.

In conducting the score Fausto Cleva revealed routine knowledge and a dramatic sense. Since the orchestral playing lacked precision, the effectiveness of the score came though only at intervals. There is no doubt that an ideal performance of "Norma" requires inspiration in the pit as well as greatness in vocal achievement.

In spite of the reservations the performance more than justified the revival of the opera. Its return to the Metropolitan recalls its choice for the opening of the Academy of Music in New York just a century ago and also the revival at the Metropolitan in 1927, which broke a 35-year hiatus and presented Rosa Ponselle, still the most memorable interpreter of the role to date.

Review 2:

Review of Jay S. Harrison in the Herald Tribune

Bellini's "Norma" returned to the Metropolitan Opera Tuesday after an absence of nine years. It is good to have her back. Like an old friend long resident out of town, she has been missed; and her reappearance only emphasized the great loss we have felt during her prolonged sabbatical. For "Norma' is an opera for the ears. Talking about it-and everybody does-means nothing. It has to be heard, then heard again. And the Met should make it its business to see that "Norma" has a home as long as there is a public to visit her. I must at this point confess that my principal enthusiasms are for the opera itself, since the performance of the occasion was quite below the standards that the company, to our good fortune, has set for itself. What seemed, in fact, to be a stellar cast on paper proved entirely remiss in the matter of supplying genuine vocal glories.

For one thing, Miss Milanov had a woefully unsuccessful evening, and, during the first two acts in particular, her singing in the top register was so consistently out of tune that it evoked an audible and visceral reaction from the audience. Nervousness, perhaps, accounted for this defection, for the role is devil-inspired in its grueling ascents above the staff. But excuse it as you will, there was no denying that Miss Milanov shrieked rather than sang and came to grief in phrase after phrase. Her third act, however, was slightly improved, and as the "Mira 0 Norma" duet hove into sight, she was to a substantial degree in repossession of the bounties and graces of her formidable vocal technique.

Miss Barbieri, as Adalgisa, was impressive, but 'impressive' is no praise for Barbieri. The woman is capable of greatness, and that we have come to expect. Throughout, her tones, though well focused and powerful, were, if not actually dreary in color, at least lacking the luminosity and opalescence that are her true capacity in the grandest moments of its potential. For his part, Mr. Penno sang with considerable brilliance though having now heard him twice it is apparent to this reviewer that the tenor's' major difficulty is in singing an even scale. With him, lovely and coarse tones are often interwoven, while soft-spun legatos are as apt as not to be followed by shattered phrases.

The best work of the evening was offered by Mr. Siepi, as the regal and commanding Oroveso. Early he dug in, and with the jitters gone he sang with huge resonance and surpassing majesty. It was, for a fact, a bright star in a performance whose other bright stars were frequently cast behind the shadow of technical clouds.

Tuesday night's production came to us in the nature of a "reconditioned" revival boasting two new sets. I have no grounds to compare it to the previous presentation, since that one I had never seen. The first act setting, however, seems entirely appropriate to the darkling deeds that are hatched before it; and the second, though it resembled at odd moments a section of the Grand Canyon, was sufficiently somber for the brooding that it houses. And the direction of Mr. Cleva, not quite as elegant as the score implies, was none the less flexible, assured and tailored to his singers' demands. But what is important is that "Norma" has returned. That alone gives occasion for thanks.

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