With two official EMI versions and five complete live recordings, Norma is at the top of the Callas hit parade, but choosing a single version is a nightmare as each has its virtues, based on the state of the soprano's voice or the surrounding cast. My second choice lies with the 1955 live recording in Roma where nearly perfect performance is sustained by a correct if not excellent sound quality.
Once we get the obvious out of the way–that from 1950 to 1964 (and arguably both before and since) Maria Callas was the greatest Norma available–we have at least a half-dozen of her performances to choose from. Two were recorded in the studio, there's another from London, one or two from Milan, and a couple of others (along with this 1955 performance) from Rome. Here she was in her vocal prime. The voice is in control at all volumes, and from blazing top to cruel/tragic low notes her coloratura is flawless, idiomatic, and always at the service of the music and text. And this security allows her to "read" the role with searing insights, offering us equal parts Norma the Woman and Norma the Warrior. In short, it's as nearly perfect a performance of this role as we're ever going to hear. Her fury and hatred in her last-act confrontation with Pollione is as terrifying as her tenderness with her children is touching.
Partnering her is the somewhat brutal Mario del Monaco, who as usual makes up with vocal splendor what he lacks in nuance, and if the truth be known, he seems to try harder here to vary his approach than in most other recordings we have of his work. Ebe Stignani's Adalgisa is the best combination of girlishness and knowing; she partners Callas well. Giuseppe Modesti's Oroveso is properly booming. Tullio Serafin was a master of the score, and he brings both tautness and lyricism to it. The sound is good enough. This epic performance has been available on many labels (and still is); this is the only one I know of that is pitched properly–the others are sharp.
With two official EMI versions and five complete live recordings, Norma is at the top of the Callas hit parade, but choosing a single version is a nightmare as each has its virtues, based on the state of the soprano's voice or the surrounding cast. My first choice lies with the first 1954 studio recording where the balance between vocal health and emotive quality is as good as one can get for this artist.
This was Maria Callas' first studio-recorded Norma, and it remains a formidable performance. If it doesn't quite have the emotional shadings of her 1960 EMI re-make, it is certainly vocally more secure and in its way just as authoritative. The grandeur of the voice itself is always in evidence; her seeming spontaneity to dramatic situations makes the drama real. Mario Filippeschi's Pollione is impressive–he was a finer tenor than he's given credit for–and Ebe Stignani's Adalgisa is warm and blends superbly with Callas in the duets. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni's Oroveso is a mass of wobbles. Tullio Serafin leads masterfully but observes all the cuts that were standard for the '50s. Most people prefer the 1960 performance, with its clearer delineation between Norma-the-warrior and Norma-the-woman (and for Corelli and Ludwig in the two supporting roles, not to mention the stereo sound), but by 1960 Callas' vocal problems were pretty overt, so you'll have to take the good with the bad. My preference is for the 1955 recording (on Opera d'Oro) with del Monaco under Serafin; its minute-by-minute potency and glorious singing are unmatchable.