Listen exclusively to a new period-instrument recording of Bellini's tragic opera that, with Cecilia Bartoli as the priestess, reveals the heroine as a woman of flesh and blood
Cecilia Bartoli leads a fabulous cast in a groundbreaking new recording that presents Bellini's music in a form that is complete with the mix of vocal and instrumental colours the composer intended for his 1831 tragic opera.
Bartoli's Norma evokes the style and artistry of the legendary soprano Giuditta Pasta, the opera's original heroine, and sees the Italian superstar continuing her mission to reveal lost details of expression and emotional variety in music that have been covered by the dark varnish of later performance traditions. Norma, often portrayed as a superhuman priestess, emerges in Bartoli's performance as a woman of flesh and blood, torn between duty and love. In collaboration with Giovanni Antonini, Riccardo Minasi and Maurizio Biondi, Cecilia Bartoli restores the sound and spirit of Norma in a recording based on the opera's original sources. Sumi Jo, John Osborn and Michele Pertusi respectively sing the roles of Adalgisa, Pollione and Oroveso. The sounds of period instruments from the composer's time, brought to life by Orchestra La Scintilla and conductor Giovanni Antonini, underpin the timbres of a cast chosen to recreate the individual vocal qualities of the opera's roles.
Decca's studio recording of Norma employs the latest critical edition of Bellini's score, painstakingly restored from manuscript and early printed sources. "Only in this way can we appreciate once more the true magic, the colour and emotion in this music," says Bartoli, who wants in this recording, "to bring Bellini's opera closer to the soundworld of the bel canto period."
Norma is released on Decca Classics on 20 May 2013 (click here to preorder on Amazon, here to pre-order on iTunes) ahead of the opera's first staging in Salzburg as part of the city's annual Whitsun Festival (of which Bartoli is artistic director). Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's production will be revived in August during the Salzburg Festival, again with Bartoli as Norma. The entire album is available here on the Guardian to listen to from 13 to 20 May.
This summer we are streaming all six operas from the Glyndebourne season. Three will come live from the festival, while three were recorded at previous festivals
Glyndebourne festival opens this weekend with Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. The new production is directed by Katharina Thoma, and the cast includes Sir Thomas Allen as the Music Master and Soile Isokoski as Ariadne. The opera's sixth performance, on Tuesday 4 June, will be streamed live from the festival here on guardian.co.uk, beginning at 7pm.
In a nod to the great composer's bicentenary year, next up will be Verdi's Falstaff. Richard Jones's production was recorded live in 2009 and features Christopher Purves in the title role in a performance proclaimed by the Guardian's Tim Ashley as "marvellous". Verdi's opera will be available to watch from 1.30pm on 21 June.
Michael Grandage's glorious Seville-set, 60s take on Le Nozze di Figaro made its debut at last year's festival to great acclaim. Mozart's opera returns to the festival this summer, and last year's production will be available to watch here from 1.30pm on 12 July.
Our next opera will be the live broadcast of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie on 25 July. The new production will be conducted by William Christie, directed by Jonathan Kent and designed by Paul Brown. Sarah Connolly sings the role of Phèdre.
Another live opera follows the Rameau – Don Pasquale, the 64th of Donizetti's 66 operas. With Danielle de Niese among the cast in Mariame Clément's production (which first aired in 2011's touring season), the comedy is sure to sparkle. This will be streamed live from the festival on 6 August.
Finally, ending our summer opera season, and nodding to Britten's centenary year, is another Michael Grandage production: Billy Budd.
The production premiered in 2010 and was recorded the same year with Jacques Imbralio a "total joy" in the title role, and Mark Elder's conducting "by turns luminous and scaldingly intense". Britten's opera will be streamed here at 1.30pm on 23 August and – as with all this season's operas – available to watch until 11.59pm on Saturday 31 August.
Glyndebourne's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos will be streamed live from the festival on 4 June at 7pm (BST). In the podcast Peggy Reynolds introduces Strauss's opera that is 'pure delight'
For her Barbican recital, the Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená chose a programme that played to her strengths, with her musicianship and interpretative skills to the fore. She was accompanied by Malcolm Martineau to his customary standard of excellence.
The first half was devoted to Ravel, whose Histoires Naturelles present five anthropomorphic character-studies of birds or insects. Articulating the texts with keen definition, Kožená explored the human traits of each creature in detail, while Martineau played the fiendishly difficult accompaniments with nonchalant ease.
Ravel's vividly contrasting Two Hebrew Melodies followed, one a solemn Hebrew setting of Kaddish, the other a Yiddish song referring lightly to life's "eternal enigma". In Kaddish, Kožená produced a grand, purposive tone that confidently scaled the prayer's spiritual heights; her whimsical treatment of the skittish, shoulder-shrugging Yiddish ditty was perfectly judged.
Flautist Kaspar Zehnder and cellist Tomáš Jamník joined Kožená and Martineau for the Chansons Madécasses, adding warm yet subtle splashes of colour to highlight Ravel's three diverse Madagascan voices. Kožená could have done with more bitterness in Auoa!, a howl of anti-colonialist rage, but she uncovered the deep sensuality of Nahandove and charmed in the lazy tang of Il Est Doux.
Kožená can sometimes seem inhibited, but by this point in the evening she had opened up, and seemed particularly relaxed in the second half. Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos went well for her, its technical challenges ably met and its quasi-operatic expression explored with skill and imagination. She succeeded, too, with the folk idioms of Bartók's Village Scenes, even if they could have done with an earthier approach; but she held the audience's attention throughout, and made special moments of two encores, by Dvorák and Janácek, from her homeland.
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Under normal circumstances, a violin bow without rosin has the same practical value as a glass hammer or a chocolate teapot. Without it, the smooth hairs produce only a ghostly whisper of a sound, yet the receipt of a rehaired, un-rosined bow caused the composer and viola player Brett Dean to make a serendipitous discovery. He put the eerily muted effect to use in Testament, originally scored for the 12 violas of the Berlin Philharmonic, but presented here in an expansion for chamber orchestra. The single movement work draws inspiration from Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament, the unsent letter in which the composer laid bare the devastating onset of deafness.
Dean's deployment of un-rosined bows is a brilliant conceit: the furious, scurrying tempo evokes a quill racing over parchment, while the disconcerting reduction of audibility presages Beethoven's trauma of watching his music being played and having to imagine the rest. Dean's piece quotes significantly from the first Razumovsky Quartet, which Beethoven completed shortly after undergoing unsuccessful treatments to stem his hearing loss at Heiligenstadt.
Dean prefaced the concert with his own new orchestration of the slow movement of the first Razumovsky Quartet, which, even with the subtle addition of woodwind, still sounded like a stark descent into unconsolable despair. Yet Beethoven was not entirely finished with this theme, which later formed the basis of the funeral march from the Eroica Symphony. Simultaneously playing and conducting from the viola desk, Dean gave the most ego-less performance of the Third imaginable, encouraging the Northern Sinfonia to play with thrilling spontaneity. The giddy momentum generated in the final movement felt less like written music than a gloriously extended improvisation.
Carrie Cracknell's new ENO production of Wozzeck relocates Berg's masterpiece to post-Iraq, recession-ridden Britain, and forges from it a bitter indictment of the political failures of our times. As an interpretation of Berg, it is at times wayward. But it makes for utterly compelling music drama and is particularly significant in restoring to the work its social conscience. We've become used, of late, to seeing Wozzeck in psychoanalytic or symbolist terms as an internalised, mental drama. Cracknell reminds us that the opera examines the impact of military trauma and grinding poverty in social as well as individual terms.
Leigh Melrose's Wozzeck, back from Iraq or Afghanistan and forgotten by the powers that sent him, now makes his living on the disenfranchised, criminal fringes of some urban hellhole by distributing drugs for Tom Randle's Captain and submitting for cash to the horrendous experiments of James Morris's megalomaniac Doctor. Sara Jakubiak's Marie, meanwhile, makes up a bed in her kitchen for her child by Wozzeck, before submitting to the advances of Bryan Register's brutal Drum Major. The interconnecting rooms of Tom Scutt's tiered set suggest a labyrinth from which no one can escape. Wozzeck's hallucinatory memories of war blend nightmarishly with the processions of coffins draped in union flags, and the tawdry world of sexual compulsion that surrounds him.
There are lapses along the way. The opera's emphasis on religious guilt is played down. Cracknell's decision to predicate Wozzeck's mental collapse on combat trauma sits uneasily with Berg's view of army life as being in itself institutionally abusive, and with the multiple ironies of a libretto that never tells us which of the characters has actually seen active service, and which has not. But there's no doubting the power of her staging, which seeps into your consciousness and won't let go.
Musically, it's astonishing. Melrose, giving the performance of a lifetime, charts Wozzeck's disintegration with unflinching veracity and an extraordinary expressive range that veers from lyrical intensity to snarl or eerie falsetto. Jakubiak's voice blazes with desire, defiance and despair. Morris terrifies, while Randle, obscenely tattooed and covered in bling, is at once charismatic and supremely sinister. This is another major achievement for conductor Edward Gardner, who is wonderfully alert to every nuance, while ratcheting up the intensity to almost unbearable levels at times. Not everyone, I suspect, will like it, but it's an outstanding achievement to which no one can remain indifferent.
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Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford-on-Avon
Commemorating Britten is what every self-respecting ensemble is doing in this centenary year, but the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) made their Britten UK tour all the more distinctive by commissioning from Sally Beamish a companion piece to Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.
Beamish's own predilection for the variation form made her a natural choice; moreover, as a former viola player with the academy, she knows their strength in depth. Hence, in her Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten, Beamish sometimes incorporated layer upon layer of strings with a single solo player to each line to create a complex tissue of sound, in addition to the usual five-part division of spoils. Taking a theme from the second Sea Interlude – Sunday Morning, from Peter Grimes – Beamish also emulated Britten's example in using dance forms for her sequence of variations. But, going beyond homage, she stamped her personality with beguiling intricacies of texture and virtuosity, as well as yearning in the Elegy and Requiem.
This well-constructed programme invoked Britten in other pieces, too. Violist Lawrence Power paid his tribute in Britten's Lachrymae, capturing perfectly its ghostly, sometimes manic, shadows, and imbuing the whole with tone-colours of exceptional artistry. Arvo Pärt never met Britten, but reflected his admiration in the Cantus in Memoriam, its bell chime lingering to haunt the air.
From the very outset in Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings, the brightly resonant acoustic of the Wiltshire Music Centre's auditorium highlighted the ASMF's discipline and vibrancy, led by Stephanie Gonley. Britten's Variations gave the concert its brilliant climax, yet also served to reaffirm, in retrospect, the affinities explored by Beamish in hers.
A biography of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev's troubled wife is forensically detailed – but with vast Siberian silences
Their meeting was utterly unremarkable: to composer Sergei Prokofiev, celebrating his New York debut in 1919, Lina Codina was one among a crowd of female admirers. To Lina, the moment marked the beginning of a love that she later described as one of the two great heartaches of her life.
Prokofiev proved an elusive quarry, mocking Lina's devotion to him and accusing her of pursuing him only so she could "pose before the world" as his wife while her own soprano career stalled. Serge considered romantic commitment "too foreign for a person living in the abstract world of sounds", conceiving of his life as another of his many games of chess, only caving when Lina herself conceived. Once married they led a peripatetic existence, touring the US, Paris, London and, increasingly, Soviet Russia. Lured to Moscow by the Stalin regime's Greek gifts of artistic freedom, Sergei relocated the family despite Lina's misgivings: to her, the Comintern headquarters initially seemed like a "huge jar full of microbes destined for worldwide distribution". Given her subsequent struggle to escape, the irony was cruel.
Simon Morrison's account of Lina's life is forensically detailed in parts, yet vast Siberian silences remain. Little is said of the eight years she spent as a zek in the gulag following her estrangement from Sergei and arrest on spurious charges, yet tantalising glimpses show her will remained undefeated.
Like her husband's music, dissonance was the leitmotif of Lina's life: from the long, debilitating campaign for Sergei's affection to her struggle for professional success. The wars were numerous, the love abundant but imperfectly returned. "Being a composer's wife isn't easy," Sergei observed coolly early in their marriage; a later, more fatalistic admission reveals the toll it had taken: his bond with Lina would remain unbroken "for it cannot be otherwise".
Where once gunfire tore apart the Tuscan estate of La Foce – as told in Iris Origo's memoir War in the Val d'Orcia – now classical music brings people together
A hush falls over the moonlit courtyard. The rhythmic percussion of countless cicadas is replaced by the sweet pulsations of a dozen violins, their melody winding up into the hot Italian night like clouds of perfumed incense. Where harsh German voices once barked orders and dusty boots shuffled and stamped, tonight there is only the serene mystery that is music, its soothing balm consigning fear to distant, painful memory.
And what music. Those Nazi officers who drove into the sunlit quad at the heart of the Tuscan edifice of La Foce would have been appalled to know it would later resound to their notion of degenerate art. There is a sense of quiet triumph in listening to Schoenberg's Transfigured Night in this setting – such an elegant repudiation of a grotesque, twisted ideology.
When Hitler's dirty and dishevelled troops arrived at Anglo-American writer and scholar Iris Origo's vast Val d'Orcia estate in 1944 they were already on the run, desperate and dangerous, being forced up through Italy by the Allies' slow and costly advance. With partisans in the woods above the house and Canadians and Scots Guards inching towards them, La Foce found itself caught in the middle. Children evacuated from Turin were sheltering in the cellars and escaped prisoners-of-war hiding in the attics; they were extremely dangerous times, bravely recorded with clarity and honesty by Origo in her famous diary, War in the Val d'Orcia.
When the fighting became intense, and La Foce looked as if it might be directly in the crossfire, Origo felt she had no choice but to move the frightened and distressed children. With all transport requisitioned and no petrol anyway, they simply walked all day across the battlefield, shells falling all around them, to the hilltop town of Montepulciano, hiding amid the crops and ditches to avoid menacing aircraft and columns of German troops. Somehow, this extraordinary party of 28 children, four babies and some 20 adults made it to safety, with the people of Montepulciano coming out to greet them with open arms.
The drama of those war years and Iris's own, sometimes tragic, life was captured last year in the first performance of a new piece based on her writings, The Land to Life Again, which brought to a close the annual festival of music staged at La Foce – just one of many classic festivals across the country that can make a visit to already special Italy even more rewarding for keen music-lovers.
The young Italian composer and conductor Francesco Cilluffo wrote the song cycle while staying on the estate and was clearly inspired by the beauty and history around him and by the quality of Origo's writing. "I wanted to get the feel of the landscape in the music," he told me. "I wanted to try to describe how the rhythm of life was cruelly interrupted, and yet out of all that destruction and hurt came a message of deep humanity and renewal."
The piece, given its premiere by the soprano Nuccia Focile and young players from the UCLA Camarades, tells of Origo's struggles to regenerate the estate's exhausted farmland in the 1930s, her desire to establish her now famous garden, the privations of war and the personal tragedy of losing a son to meningitis – a passage written as a duet for voice and cello, poignantly played on this occasion by her grandson, the cellist Antonio Lysy, who also runs the festival.
He has great vision for music in this wildly beautiful region (south of Siena and west of Chiusi) and told me he wants one day to stage an opera based on the war diary at the Teatro Policiano in Montepulciano, where Origo finally managed to house the children safely after their dangerous march. With a starry list of patrons including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Charles Dutoit, Hans Werner Henze and Maurizio Pollini, his ambitions might be realised, and not only in music. Hollywood has expressed interest in the diary, too. That could explain Colin Firth's name among the patrons.
Francesco Cilluffo returns this year when the Incontri in Terra di Siena, to give it its full title, will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. He'll be conducting Wagner's Siegfried Idyll in a festival that features the cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, the pianist Andrew von Oeyen and the extrovert Baroque quartet Red Priest. Music from Bach and Vivaldi to Verdi and Piazzolla will be heard in the buildings and gardens of the estate and in the castles and churches of the Val d'Orcia from 19 to 28 July.
When Antonio and Iris Origo bought the estate in 1924 they found a beautiful but derelict landscape peopled by illiterate peasants living in great poverty. They set about building new farmhouses, a school for the children and a clinic and social club, now an attractive restaurant called Dopolavoro.
Today, one of the 1930s farmhouses is a small hotel. La Bandita lies above La Foce, up what is probably one of Italy's most famous roads, reproduced on millions of postcards and on thousands of calendars. It winds in S-bends up a hillside, cypress trees standing sentinel at its side, a perfect depiction of all things Tuscan. It looks idyllic, but in truth it's merciless.
Imagine driving over a rocky beach to get to your hotel and you have some idea of the condition of the road. It was made by Antonio and his men from great boulders and chunks of stone and took me 45 minutes to negotiate the three miles in my faithful VW. It's a serious impediment to anyone wanting to tour the region. Once you arrive, a little shaken, you are rewarded with a spectacular view of the Val d'Orcia, its mysterious treeless landscape unforgiving in the hot summer sun or the snows of winter. And the prices are equally unforgiving. A room for the night costs €295-€395 in high season: the pigsty suite, €495-€595. The impoverished farmers of the 1930s would surely gasp in disbelief.
For more information on the Incontri in Terra di Siena, go to itslafoce.org. La Foce is 60km south of Siena. Perugia airport is the nearest airport, with Ryanair offering flights from £20 one way (ryanair.com). Pisa airport is two hours away by car. EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies to Pisa from £46.78 one way.
Five other intimate Italian classical music festivals to enjoy this year
1. Trasimeno Music Festival: Umbria, 29 June-5 July International pianist Angela Hewitt plays and curates a festival of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Messiaen – with talks by Michael Berkeley and Julian Barnes – in Magione, Gubbio and Perugia. Includes a five-star event: Hewitt performs Bach's Art of Fugue in its entirety in one evening for the first time (trasimenomusicfestival.com)
2. Sferisterio Opera Festival: Macerata, Le Marche, 19 July-11 August Verdi's Il Trovatore and Nabucco will be performed in the magnificent Sferisterio which derives its name and its half-circumference shape from the game played inside: "armband ball" or pallone col bracciale (sferisterio.it)
3. Rossini Opera Festival: Pesaro, Le Marche, 10-23 August Sun, sea and sand with your music. Rossini was born on the Adriatic at Pesaro, which celebrates its favourite son this year with new productions of William Tell and L'Italiana in Algeri, L'Occasione fa il Ladro, Il Viaggio a Reims and La Donna del Lago (rossinioperafestival.it)
4. International Chamber Music Festival: Montalcino, Tuscany, 7-12 July Musicians from the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra play chamber music in the medieval splendour of Montalcino and at Villa di Geggiano, Siena. Make sure you sample the famous Montalcino rosso as well (musica-reale.com)
5. Baveno Festival Umberto Giordano: Lake Maggiore, 11-21 July Dedicated to the Italian composer Umberto Giordano (1867-1948). The programme promises international artists performing on the lake (festivalgiordano.it)
Royal Opera House, London; All Saints, Eastbourne
In Verdi's four-and-a-half-hour opera Don Carlo, one moment captures its essence. The Grand Inquisitor, blind and venomous, totters into the study of the Spanish monarch, Philip II. Two elderly men confront the limits of their power: kingship versus faith, dogmatism, contrition and the lonely terror of old age. The music begins black and hushed – low strings, unearthly bassoons – and slowly unfurls to quaking magnificence. A depressed and loveless Philip acknowledges the dominance of this raging man of God, swathed in clerical silks and, as played by Eric Halfvarson at the Royal Opera House, hunched and monstrous like a crimson slug.
This may be the second revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2008 staging, with sumptuous designs by Bob Crowley lit by Mark Henderson, but it only gains in authority. Antonio Pappano, conducting with loving ferocity and spacious tempi, draws the classiest orchestral playing and choral work from the ROH musicians. It's worth saying that first, before we get lost in rapturous appreciation of the cast, always the talking point – even more than usually in opera, that is – in this work.
Based on Schiller's play and here performed in the Italian version, Verdi's much revised masterpiece demands world-class singers at the peak of their powers. You can't do a low-key Don Carlo. The thrill of having the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (supply your own superlatives) in the title role is as good as it gets for opera fans. With the experienced Ferruccio Furlanetto, pensive, surly, snide and in growling, robust voice as Philip II, and Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo/Posa, the balance of male voices worked beautifully. This Polish baritone has a freshness of manner and flexibility of tone which make him especially touching in his portrayal of Carlos's loyal friend.
They were deft in their celebrated duet, an almost crooning close harmony ballad in which Verdi cleverly makes the two voice types – tenor in descent, baritone rising – meet on one note, a symbol of undying friendship. Carlos is a tricky role, buffeted by circumstance, responding rather than determining events. Whereas Rolando Villazón, who sang when the staging was new, goes for febrile, almost quivering intensity, Kaufmann has a stillness and air of containment, equally compelling. This generous and serious performer rarely disappoints.
Anja Harteros, as Elizabeth of Valois, received rave reviews for her first-night performance. I missed her. By Wednesday she was out with tonsillitis, replaced by Lianna Haroutounian, due anyway to take over the role this week. So the Armenian soprano made her Royal Opera debut early to thundering applause. Petite and vulnerable in manner, she brought humanity to a part which can seem chilly. If at times her voice seemed confined, by her final outpouring as she bids farewell to her beloved Carlos, she suddenly let rip. This chimes with the demands of text and music: until that point, she is forced to repress her feelings. Haroutounian seemed to pull forth ever-increasing vocal powers until you thought her heart, or yours, would burst.
By chance another Grand Inquisitor was prowling around last week, not in Covent Garden where he has taken the role in this production with Kaufmann, but on the English south coast. John Tomlinson sang an extract from Don Carlo, with fellow bass Michael Druiett as Philip II, at a weekend festival in Eastbourne called Gods and Heroes. The theme was this year's three anniversary composers – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – with performances by younger singers who are continuing their training thanks to support from Mastersingers, a foundation which particularly helps those moving into Wagnerian repertoire.
As Tomlinson sang Wotan at Covent Garden and Bayreuth for two decades, as well as the world over, he has a jot of experience. Lee Bisset and Stuart Pendred, both in the cast of Longborough's Ring Cycle next month, sang extracts from The Flying Dutchman. Druiett, Opera North's Wanderer in their forthcoming Siegfried, worked on the role with Tomlinson in a public masterclass. The tradition of British Wagner singing, passed from Reginald Goodall to Tomlinson and his generation, continues on its exciting journey down the Rhine. With the emphasis firmly on music, it feels worlds away from the stampedes and protests at Düsseldorf's "Nazi" Tannhaüser last week.
I have a memory of the composer Steve Martland, who died last week aged 53. A perpetual rebel, he and the BBC were not friends in the late 1980s. He believed Radio 3 had banned his music. In 1992 I decided to carry a piece about him in the first issue of BBC Music Magazine, which I was editing. He was wary. Why did we want to write about him? Were we trying to stitch him up? He arrived for the photo shoot in his uniform tight white T-shirt, biceps on display – a look he maintained all his life – fully expecting to be handed a shirt and tie.
In went the piece, entitled "New music's muscle man". (We dropped a headline comparing him with Arnold Schwarzenegger.) In came the letters of complaint: muscles, T-shirts, talk of radical politics and iconoclastic music termed "drastic classicism"? What was this dire new rag? Steve was tickled. On hearing of his death, I dug out the article. It ends with these words, to which he remained true: "I see it as my duty to speak out. I'm involved with something positive – that's why I'm so militant. And that's why I must stay an outsider."
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