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Bel Canto with Balance: Bellini's 'Norma'

Over the centuries, opera composers and librettists have created scores of spectacular roles for sopranos. And of all the great soprano roles in operatic history, there's one that may cover more dramatic territory, and demand more of those who perform it, than any other.

The title character in Vincenzo Bellini's Norma is a woman with emotions ranging from haughty and demanding, to desperately passionate, to vengeful and defiant. The singer who portrays her must convey all of this while also tackling some of the most vocally torturous music ever composed. And that challenge has become even more difficult over time. In Bellini's day, many opera houses were smaller than the massive theaters so many modern companies occupy, and orchestras were smaller as well -- giving singers less space to fill and fewer instruments to compete with. Now, with halls that seat thousands and hundred-piece orchestras, operatic voices have grown as well. The singers who originally performed operas such as Norma may not have thrived in today's operatic world.

Still, there's another fairly recent trend that's changing things. Within the past few decades, specialty orchestras have evolved, which play what are known as original instruments. Generally, these are smaller ensembles, using instruments similar to those of the 17th and 18th centuries. It's now common to hear original instruments in performances of baroque music -- including opera -- and in classical, and even early romantic symphonies -- including works by Beethoven, Schubertand Schumann.

The trend isn't so common in performances of 18th-century opera, even though Beethoven and Schubert were writing their later symphonies at the same time Bellini was becoming one of Europe's most famous opera composers. But now, with productions such as the one featured here, that's changing.

On this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a performance of Norma, from Warsaw, featuring soprano Katia Pellegrino in the title role. Her voice may not be as powerful as some of those we've come to associate with the role. Nonetheless, it's beautiful, and she and the rest of the cast have something else going for them, as well: The orchestra accompanying them is the acclaimed original instruments ensemble Europa Galante, led by conductor Fabio Biondi.

The resulting sound is a fascinating contrast to the lush opera productions often heard in today's theaters. With less volume coming from the orchestra, the voices are heard with less strain and more clarity, arias and ensembles gleam with an almost crystalline timbre, and the innate delicacy of Bellini's music shines through.

The performance is part of Warsaw's 2010 International Music Festival, and along with Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante and Katia Pellegrino as Norma, it features soprano Lucia Cirillo as Adalgisa and tenor Gregory Kunde as Pollione.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.