From the Archives: Norma at the Met
By Peter Clark
The Metropolitan Opera first opened its doors in 1883, just as a cultural revolution was washing over the music world. With a cultish fervor, devotees of the new vogue for Wagner divided the opera world into the “old-fashioned” Italian works and the “music of the future” advocated by the German genius. Bellini’s Norma, premiered in 1831, was the epitome of the old Italian school, firmly grounded in flexible, virtuoso vocalism and soaring melodies accompanied by relatively simple orchestrations and harmonies.
So it is ironic that the Met’s first Norma was the company’s greatest Brünnhilde and Isolde, German soprano Lilli Lehmann (pictured above). As the Met’s leading prima donna, she was given a special benefit performance (meaning she would receive the profits from the box office) on February 27, 1890. She chose to perform Norma. Critics speculated that Lehmann wanted to show off her versatility and her ability to perform the old bel canto style despite her successes in Wagnerian music drama. Lehmann sang Norma in German, but returned two seasons later to perform it in Italian. Contemporary writers split on her success in the part, but according to most, her vocal feat was proof positive that the German declamatory style did not ruin voices for Italian music.
Lehmann was perhaps the last great Wagnerian to have a major success as Norma at the Met, but she was only the first in a long line of star sopranos whose virtuosity was put on display in the role of Bellini’s Druid priestess. It was 35 years before the Met mounted Norma again, this time for one of the most gifted dramatic sopranos in its history, the Italian-American Rosa Ponselle (pictured above). Her smooth, dark-hued instrument and a flexibility not usually associated with powerful voices admirably met the extraordinary demands of Bellini’s long, sustained lines and brilliant coloratura. Ponselle’s care in giving dramatic meaning to the ornamental vocal passages was widely noted and set the stage for the Norma of Maria Callas (pictured at the top of this page), in her Met debut, on opening night of 1956.
Like Ponselle, Callas’s unusual combination of power and flexibility allied to a now legendary dramatic ability made Norma a perfect fit for her talents. Already a celebrated Norma in numerous cities of Italy and Latin America, as well as in London and Chicago, Callas had been sought after for years before her debut by Met General Manager Rudolf Bing. Though she only sang the part six times in New York, her influence as an interpreter was profound and continues to this day thanks to her many recordings.
Callas also initiated a renewed interest in the bel canto operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini that blossomed even as her own career wound down. Two famous dramatic coloratura sopranos followed her as bel canto pioneers and took up the role of Norma in the 1970s. The first was Australian Joan Sutherland who sang her first Norma at the Met in 1970 in a new production that also featured the company debut of mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne as a virtuoso Adalgisa. (The pair are pictured above, with Carlo Bergonzi.) The fireworks of vocal display that these two divas set off, especially in their intricate, finely tuned duets created a sensation.
The second to follow Callas was Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. Like Sutherland, her talents were more purely vocal than dramatic, but she too enjoyed a partnership with star Adalgisas, first Fiorenza Cossotto and later Shirley Verrett.
Many more Normas would follow as a range of sopranos tested their abilities against the role’s formidable challenges. Renata Scotto sang the title role on opening night in 1981, with Tatiana Troyanos as Adalgisa. Then with a new production in 2001, Jane Eaglen and Dolora Zajick joined the ranks of the Met’s Norma-Adalgisa duos. The production being streamed this week, a new staging by David McVicar, opened the 2017–18 season. Sondra Radvanovsky sang the title role, with Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, Joseph Calleja as Pollione, and Matthew Rose as Oroveso, conducted by Carlo Rizzi.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.