I’ve just got to feature a piece I’m obsessed with, not a “song” per se, but an opera duet, one of my favorite moments in all of opera, one that I occasionally find myself listening to over and over again because I can’t get enough of it: “Mira, o Norma” from Bellini’s Norma. I love bel canto opera to begin with, and to me this duet is the epitome of the beauty and excitement of this style. It’s SO satisfying. The slow section sucks you right in and washes over you with its warmth, and then the fast section, exhilarating with its syncopated rhythms and soaring thirds, is impossible to listen to it without a giant smile on your face! (In my case happy tears are usually involved as well… it’s what you might call “bel-canto-induced ecstasy.”) The fact that it’s about the building of a strong female friendship makes it that much more rewarding.
There are several wonderful and classic recordings of this, but when it comes to video clips, I have a soft spot for this one with Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland from an Ed Sullivan Show telecast in 1970. It’s partly because Sutherland/Horne was the first Norma/Adalgisa pairing I ever heard, and because I don’t think it gets any better than Marilyn Horne on Adalgisa — it’s probably my favorite thing in her voice (and there are a lot of things I love in her voice). When she begins this piece, I can just feel myself absolutely melting. The other thing I love about this particular clip is the old telecast look — it makes me somehow nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even alive, a time when opera stars were household names and were regulars on mainstream television. Not to mention the fact that I get such a kick out of their late-60s/early-70s style here (that hair!!) — Horne looks so absolutely radiant in that green dress with the never-ending sleeves! But most importantly, these are two of the most glorious voices of our time. The beauty and resonance and seeming effortlessness of their sound, their legato, their phrasing, the elegant way in which they hold themselves — it’s bel canto singing at its best.
This piece also holds some beautiful memories for me — I first really took note of the duet several years ago when I was an apprentice artist in the Bel Canto at Caramoor program. I had heard “Casta diva” many times but didn’t know the rest of the opera very well. Will Crutchfield played a recording for us during one of his lectures (I’m fairly certain this was the lecture on legato) which included a clip of this duet. I remember being especially captivated by Horne’s Adalgisa. And that summer, we happened to also be performing Norma up at Caramoor’s Venetian Theater, so we young artists were the chorus. It was one of the most exhilarating and memorable chorus experiences I’ve ever had (notwithstanding the 90+ degree heat and profuse sweating from everyone on stage in the semi-outdoor theater). For starters, standing mere feet from Angela Meade while she sang “Casta diva” was thrilling! And Bellini’s chorus music was so much fun to sing (especially the “Guerra, guerra” chorus!). But then, when we weren’t on stage, I hovered just offstage in the wings to watch the rest of it go down; I just about bawled from the emotion of watching that duet for the first time, with Meade and Keri Alkema as Adalgisa, in the absolutely electric atmosphere that is the packed Venetian Theater. Unforgettable.
And now I’m finally learning the duet myself (about to perform it in recital with the wonderful soprano Reyna Carguill on May 1st at 2:30pm at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village — shameless plug!), and so I have been working on it with one of my coaches and mentors, none other than Marilyn Horne herself. It’s more than a little surreal to sing the opening line for Adalgisa herself and then have her pipe right in on Norma’s line, clearly in the style of Sutherland! Just priceless.
So it seems my obsession with this duet will not end any time soon! I hope to sing the whole role someday, but for not I will wallow in the joy of this scene. Enjoy this clip, and then go look up all the other wonderful Norma/Adalgisa pairs of the past! Who are your favorites?<