London Office lOa Soho Square
THE GRAMOPHONE Incorporating V 0 X, THE R A D I 0 C RI TIC and B R 0 A DCA ST REV lEW
COMPTON MACKENZIE and CHRISTOPHER STONE
TeleDhone Gerrard 2136. ,2137
TeleJ:rams Parmaxto. Rath. London
THE Parlophone album of Bellini's Norma, recorded at a grand command performance at the Turin Opera House, is one of the best operatic recordings on a grand scale we have yet had. That this triumph of recording should have been achieved with an Italian opera first produced on December 26, 183 I , gives me particular pleasure, because I am con vinced that unless modern composers take to writing melody again, opera will die. Norma offers about two hours and a half of what is practically unbroken melody, melody which from time to t ime touches the ultimate heights of melody, as in the great aria" Casta Diva" and in the great soprano duet "Mira, 0 Norma." When I remember this l impid strain of melody and compare i t with the noise of trying to hive a recalcitrant swarm of bees, which is all the music our modern English composers seem able to produce when they turn their attention to opera, I have to conclude that the reason why so many modern operatic composers do not write melodies is because they have no melodies to write.
Yet the first performance of Norma at La Scala was as big a failure as the first performance of Traviata and the first performance of Carmen. Some said the hostile reception was engineered by Countess Samoyloff, with whom Bellini had had a love affair and whom he had just thrown over for Giuditta Pacini. If Pacini herself had been singing that night of December 26, 183 I , the triumph of the j i l ted countess would have been complete, but as a matter of fact, though she may have provided a few cat-calls, Samoyloff deserves less of the discredit for the hostile reception than the illness of some of the actors and the rack of rehearsal. The only singer who came out of that first evening with success was Giulia Grisi in the part of Adalgisa. Even Pasta, who had made up her mind that" Casta Diva" was not singable, failed at the first performance. Perhaps the success of Grisi stung her rival to renewed efforts, for she sang the aria magnificently on the second night, and with that success gave to " Casta Diva" the cachet i t has never lost of being the greatest soprano aria ever written. In this recorded version i t is sung by Gina Cigna. I would not say that I have not preferred other sopranos, but I do think that the scale of the present
production demanded a soprano of tremendous force, and that force Cigna is able to provide. Moreover, Ebe Stignani in the part of Adalgisa is another soprano of tremendous power, and when these two Druidesses get going we do feel they can stand up even to Stonehenge, where they have their apartments.
My first experience of this opera was in June IgI6, a June day of unparalleled heat even for Athens. All day the barometer stood at 109 in the shade, and all day we had been waiting anxiously in Athens for the reply of the · Greek Government to an ultimatum delivered by the Entente ministers-an ultimatum whose effectiveness was to be reinforced by the arrival of the British and French fleets. All day long Greek troops had been marching down to the Pirreus with the apparent intention of resisting any landing, and our anxiety had not been allayed after the ultimatum had been delivered by the arrival of a telegram to say that the Fleet could not arrive for another twenty-four hours, and asking if the delivery of the Note could be postponed.
"I had sent most of my staff home with strict orders to remain indoors, and the tramp of soldiers marching down toward the Pirreus began to play upon my nerves. I reflected that I had staked everything on non-resistance, and I began to wonder if my judgment had not been wrong after all. In the present state of tension and in this ghastly heat the smallest incident might provoke a massacre. I knew that some of the more bitter of the anti-Ententists had stored grenades in various rooms along the main streets of the city. I knew that even convicts had been released for violence and that desperadoes had been imported into Athens from the neighbouring districts. The most trivial incident might lead to the most horrible street fighting and worse. Much might depend on obedience to my orders, and I hoped fervidly that they were being obeyed by keeping indoors.
" Presently one of my subalterns came in to say that the men upstairs were getting nervous and asked if I would mind sending the car down to Phaleron where our yacht, the Valk)lrie, was lying and borrowing the five Turki sh Mausers on board.
" 'The men upstairs would feel much happier if they were armed,' he urged .
" , A damned lot of good five Mauser rilles will do if th e other side really mea ns business,' I observed.