This is a treat that I did not know existed. It is a pleasure to see and to hear Jon Vickers and Monserrat Caballé at the height of their powers. The production, from the amphitheatre at Orange, in 1974 must have been one of the first ever live filmings of an opera. Sadly, the pioneering nature of the project is all too apparent: it seems to have been filmed with just a couple of cameras and lit with a 40-watt light-bulb. Members of the chorus get in the way of the principals and, quite often, the stage seems to be in almost complete darkness. Then there is the famous Orange wind to contend with: it seemed to be blowing at force 9 on the night this performance was filmed. It reminded me of the English sport of extreme ironing whose devotees like nothing better than to press their clothes halfway up a cliff. This production is a demonstration of extreme opera but, miraculously, on a few occasions everything comes together. Caballé in Act I sings defiantly into the wind as it lashes her cloak around her shoulders. Caballé, in fact, comes out best throughout. She has a dynamic range and vocal control that would be astonishing even in a recording studio never mind a Roman amphitheatre. Her fading glissando at the end of Casta Diva is probably the equal of Callas's.
In most of the performances of Norma that I have seen Pollione is played as a bit of a wimp so it was refreshing to see Jon Vicker's virile performance. Sadly the wind and the primitive recording quality mar most of his singing so we only get an impression of how the great man must really have sounded. The highlight of Norma is the close harmony duets between the two sopranos but, Joséphine Veasey as Adalgesa was unable to defy the elements in the way that Caballé could so their duets are a disappointment. All in all, a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.
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