Maria Callas and Cecilia Bartoli

When I last interviewed Cecilia Bartoli, I praised her rendition of “Casta diva,” and she hinted that she might undertake the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma, which is usually assigned to dramatic sopranos these days.
“‘Casta diva’ is a prayer, and the dynamic markings are piano, pianissimo, sotto voce. And since Norma is by Mr. Bellini and not by ‘the tradition,’ I–as an interpreter, as the composer’s servant–simply recorded this aria with a period orchestra and the dynamics that Bellini wrote in his music.”

Bartoli has a point. In the diaphanous playing of Zurich’s Orchestra La Scintilla and the ever-shifting luster and shadings of her voice, one can hear the moonlight and the numinous shimmerings of the forest evoked in Norma’s prayer to the moon goddess.

Would Bartoli ever consider singing the rôle onstage? “It would have to be a Norma not tied to ‘tradition,’ but to the autograph score,” she says. “The orchestras that played in Bellini’s day consisted of 40, 45 musicians. It would be a bel canto Norma–not, let us say, a Wagnerian Norma!”
Cecilia Bartoli sang Norma in concert form last night in Dortmund, with a reprise scheduled for 1 July. My understanding of German does not (yet) allow me to grasp nuances of the reviews, but they seem positive and, in some cases, downright ecstatic.

Google Translator came up with a funny sentence in the Der Westen review: You must overcome the Callas, anyway.

Bartoli, like all performing artists, is self-absorbed. (That is only logical, for without a whopping dose of narcissism, who could undertake such an unforgiving career?) When I interviewed her, she had almost nothing to say about Callas and seemed to think that Callas’s glory days had been the 1960s and 1970s. For Time, Bartoli (or her handlers) wrote a tribute to Callas that consists mostly of bromides.

Nonetheless, I feel that Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez are the two most important heirs of Callas active today. Some scholars excoriate Callas for accepting heavily cut scores and failing to ornament music in an “authentic” manner. (To this I counter: Callas, Serafin, and colleagues were modernists and acted accordingly.) Others, including Rupert Christiansen, argue that the so-called “bel canto” revival grew out of Italian fascism and would have continued without Callas; and that early Ottocento music is hokum, anyway, so who cares? (No need to counter the latter claim: The gentleman’s stupidity speaks for itself.)

Without Callas, can anyone imagine the careers of Bartoli and Flórez, to say nothing of Sutherland, Caballé, Horne, and Sills? Would we have Philip Gossett’s revelatory editions of Verdi and Rossini? (Full disclosure: Philip is a friend.)

When Cecilia Bartoli invokes fidelity to the score and lavishes her musical and expressive genius upon “minor,” forgotten works, she is continuing the work that Maria Callas, Serafin, Luchino Visconti, and their cohorts undertook last century. Her notion of fidelity may differ from Callas’s—and her repertoire and approach certainly owe much to the HIP (historically informed performance) movement—but without Maria Callas, Bartoli’s Dortmund Norma never would have happened.

A coda: In 1957, Maria Callas portrayed Norma in London and sang a very delicate, small-scale “Casta diva” in rehearsal. A colleague complimented her on the approach, and she replied that she considered it the proper way to sing the aria—but that Italian audiences, accustomed to heroic voices, would never stand for it.

In bocca al lupo to Cecilia Bartoli. (In 2006, Bellini brought luck to the Azzurri, but it was Puritani and not Norma. But I digress.) I look forward to reading more about her Norma and to hearing her sing the entire rôle. (Europeans, please let me know if you learn of a webcast!)

Read more about Maria Callas and Norma.


  1. Like Bartoli or not (and I confess I do not like any of her voice production), one can not escape the fact that this mezzo soprano aspirates ALL her scales - an appalling fault that ruins her Casta Diva. And quite apart from the intrusive vibrato, there are H's everywhere in her scales (as one Youtuber so correctly said) and having heard this extremely annoying aspect of her singing many times before, I was prepared for all the faults...ones that were there in SPADES. To have her sing a complete Norma would be an excruciating experience. Elina Garanca though(another 'supposed' Mezzo), would make a wonderful job of both this aria and cabaletta (that Bartoli wisely chose not to attempt) and indeed the entire opera.

  2. I agree that Bartoli's aspiration can be intrusive--she sometimes aspirates entire *phrases*, let alone scales. That said, for all of her oddities, I find her a gripping and thoughtful artist; and in my experience, she always sounds better live than on disc. As for her Norma, I prefer to hear it before I judge it. What I have heard of Garanca has not impressed me, but she is young and (one hopes) growing. If she is a Norma-in-the-making, so much the better. I hope that she works with care and humility towards that goal. I *am* looking forward to hearing Sondra Radvanovsky sing Norma.

  3. I don't want to prejudge Bartoli's Norma either. I like most of her earlier work, and I admire how she approaches her new projects with an historical perspective.

  4. Dear Zach5452: Thanks for your visit and comment. I agree with you and hope that a webcast (or CD release) of the "Norma" is forthcoming.

  5. For those who can read in Italian and in French, I recommend these two articles:

    1) Per la superdiva Bartoli un debutto fuori Norma (in Italian)

    2) Basta Diva : la "Norma" di Cecilia Bartoli (in French)

  6. Dear Luis Carlos: Well, it was a given that Corriere della Grisi would hate this undertaking. (Let's be honest: If it's not a mummy, they don't like it.) The La Stampa article is strange: The writer finds much to admire but seemingly dismisses it all with that final jab. I still want to hear this "Norma" myself.

  7. Heard Joyce DiDonato's magnificent Paris Elena in Donna del lago - a 'soprano' role. She's singing Adalgisa in 2 concert performances of Norma soon in Salzburg (with Gruberova). Might we hope that she might 'graduate' in a few years? Certainly a great bel cantist of today who's handled her voice and career very judiciously.

  8. Dear Rebecca,

    Thanks for your comment and visit. Lucky you to have heard that "Donna"!

    I saw the listing of that enticing Salzburg "Norma" and agree with you that di Donato seems a credible candidate for the rôle down the line.

    For the time being, though, I would be happy for the chance to hear Bartoli! :-))