In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I have never been a big fan of Bellini and its true that other than I Capulleti e i Montecchi I don’t find most of his operas to my taste. And indeed I find Norma, his biggest hit and best known work, a bit of a bore – those long lyric lines do very little for me. However many years ago I was in the audience for one of the great performances of the late 20th century of – you guessed it – Norma. It was an evening that became legendary in opera circles and remains 37 years later etched in my memory as one of the most incredible evenings I’ve spent at the opera.
It was July 20, 1974: Montserrat Caballé, Jon Vickers and Josephine Veasey were scheduled to sing the first of several performances of Norma at the summer festival in the old Roman Theatre in Orange. My friend Bob and I drove up from Avignon – all the hotels in and around Orange had been booked for months and that was the closest place we could find lodgings. There was excitement in the air – and a Mistral. That cold, strong, relentless wind that can blow for one or two days and at times a week often reaching speeds of 90km an hour.
We gathered for the 2100 curtain sitting on the stone benches of the ancient theatre, protected from the cold by rented cushions and wrapped in sweaters that we had sensibly brought with us. The promoters obviously were hoping the wind would drop and delayed the performance for almost 45 minutes – but Mother Nature was having none of that. So the orchestra clothes pegged their scores to the music stands, the lights went down on a packed house, Giuseppe Patané mounted the podium and what followed was the stuff of legends. The Mistral was as much a protagonist that evening as the druid Priestess and her unfaithful Roman; indeed perhaps it was the need to fight that constant wind that spurred the singers on to give such magnificent performances. Vickers, never a bel canto specialist, sang with the strength and intensity he brought to all his roles, Veasey was worthy subject of his adoration but at the centre of it all was Caballé giving her considerable all.
Caballé claimed that this was the greatest performance she ever gave and as she listens to the applause you can just catch as slight smile cross her lips. At that point she, and we, knew that this was going to be something special.
29 giguino – Santi Pietro e Paolo