Jessye Norman: a diva who lives up to the name

Jessye Norman is a genuine diva. This term, an idiomatically untranslatable Italian word, has become widely misused in the past decade. In opera, it used to apply only to a soprano (and the occasional mezzo) who radiated that rare sort of blazing personality that made her the most captivating person to watch onstage. Miss Norman is truly such a presence.

She also possesses one of the unique instruments in opera. Hers is a dark-hued voice whose timbre gains in richness and luster the lower it goes, right down to tones that are the envy of many a mezzo. There is nothing miniature about her bold presence; Miss Norman inhabits her songs and revels in the grand statement of them.

This does not mean that she is incapable of tapering her large voice down to hushed intimacy, but that the intimacy comes out of something majestic. Ears used to hearing art songs (or lieder) recorded by small, whispery voices often need some readjusting to appreciate Norman's scale.

Norman has built her international career in lieder and in the orchestral concert literature. Recordings have been a key factor as well. And whereas most big voices are not flattered by microphones, Norman's timbre is often strikingly well captured in the recording studio.

In fact, her new ``Schubert Lieder'' album (Philips digital, 412 623-1 [LP]; 412 623-2 [CD]) captures, particularly on compact disc, the unique color and impact of her instrument better than any other recording I know of. In this recital she is at her memorable best in both the grand statement and the storytelling songs. In the intimate ones, she finds a communicative thrust that is constantly admirable, though occasionally artificial in effect. Her accompanist is the deft, supportive Phillip Moll.

I suspect that those who know this diva's recital work only from records do not have an idea of the magic she can create in person. A full sampling of that magic was given during her all-Strauss program at the Metropolitan Opera House recently.

Strauss songs are ideal for so large a house, and Norman could roar or whisper to her heart's content. The pitch might have suffered on occasion, but this is the price one pays when dealing with large voices. Her program included a few Strauss chestnuts and a good representation of the often-neglected items in the Strauss lieder canon. She was magnificently accompanied by Met music director James Levine.

Norman's operatic ventures have been limited, even on records. Operetta is an entirely new area for her. As the heroine of the new EMI/Angel recording of Offenbach's delectable ``La Belle H'el`ene'' (digital, DSB-3981 [LP]), she creates a character that leaps out of the speakers, now formidable, now kittenish, imperious, and petulant. She is ably partnered by tenor John Aler. What a pleasure to report that both Americans speak and sing a French that is at all times intelligible and natural sounding. And the French supporting cast is outstanding. One could do with more animated conducting than Michel Plasson provides, however.

An earlier all-Wagner album (recorded in 1975) has recently been transferred to CD with stunning results (Philips 412 655-2). Norman sings the ``Liebestod'' from ``Tristan und Isolde'' and the five ``Wesendonk Songs.'' Her conductor is Colin Davis, at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra. The ``Tristan'' excerpts are effective, but the ``Wesendonk Songs'' are, after Kirsten Flagstad's London recording (not currently available), the best on records.

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