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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Opera Review: The Woman in the Moon

Angela Meade takes over the Met's Norma.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Angela Meade (top) and Jamie Barton share a sisterly moment in Bellini's Norma.
Photo © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Since the premiere of Bellini's Norma in 1831, the opera's title role has become a career statement for any soprano. Malibran, Callas, Sutherland and Sills have all essayed the part to varying degrees of success. Thanks to Hollywood and the occasional TV commercial "Casta diva" has become one of those melodies known even to those ignorant of the world of opera--the biggest hit tune in Bellini's repertory.
On Monday evening at the Metropolitan Opera, Angela Meade made the second of three scheduled appearances as Norma, leading the second cast in this season's revival. (A review of the first cast with Sondra Radanovky is available here.) And for the most part, the American soprano lived up to her promise, both in that famous aria and in the drama that followed. "Casta diva" was led very slowly by conductor Riccardo Frizza, allowing Ms. Meade to use hushed, sweet tone to give a a loving caress to each note. The vocal line lifted like one of the opera house's Swarovski chandeliers, drawing the listener into a state of bliss and making time seem to (briefly) stand still.

Ms. Meade is not a great actress, but with a voice like this she may not have to be. She moved like the moon goddess that the Druids worshipped, a placid, implacable force that seemed above the messy events of her character's complex personal life. This impassivity became a problem in certain scenes--particularly the Act II monologue where Norma contemplates murdering her two illegitimate children. With a dagger in her hand Ms. Meade seemed uncertain and did not convince. (This may be because this unlovely John Copley-John Conklin production is a revival at the end of its run, and its second cast may receive less attention from the director.) In almost every scene, the singer compensated by acting with her voice, molding the vocal line expertly and singing with impressive if not flawless technique.

The show gathered considerable momentum in the second act, in the long series of duets and ensembles that bring Norma to its fiery climax. Again, Ms. Meade did everything with her voice, whether descending rapid intervals in sync with her Adalgisa (Jamie Barton) in their friendship duet or putting grief and rage into her final confrontation with the treacherous Pollione (Aleksandrs Antonenko.) Her final plea to Oroveso (James Morris) was the most moving part of the entire evening, with the vocal line seeming to melt both his character and the audience alike. Simple beauty like this is achieved through technique, but here the words were injected with genuine emotional weight.

These performances are also a coming-out party for mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, whose rise to the top of potential international stars has been as meteoric as Ms. Meade's. Ms. Barton was a thrilling, dramatically involved Adalgisa, capable of sweet notes in the upper register of her big Act I aria. She brought dramatic impact to her key Act I ensembles--the big duet with Pollione and the final confrontation trio in which she and Norma are revealed to be rivals for the love of the tenor. In all scenes, Ms. Barton displayed a full, plush mezzo-soprano voice, potent in her solos and bringing much-needed energy to Bellini's all-important ensembles.

The best part of the evening was the long Act II duet in which Norma forgives Adalgisa for her affair with Pollione and the two singers swear eternal friendship in a style that was later cribbed by Giuseppe Verd. This lengthy duet made one forget the static direction and ugly, sparse sets as a gorgeous conjunction of voices leaped fearlessly into this very difficult music. This was thrilling, seat-of-the pants singing as they raced down the intervals, taking perfect triplets with the ease of artists that clearly trusted each other's instruments.

Another great improvement  was the performance of bass-baritone James Morris in the role of Oroveso, the patriarch of Norma's pagan community. Mr. Morris was dramatically solid, singing with a pleasing (though dry) tone. He still projects fatherly grandeur and looks good carrying a big stick--a legacy of his many years playing Wagner's Wotan on the Met stage. As Pollione, Mr. Antonenko was solid and brassy in tone, and clearly content to take a back seat to this show's female leads. The Met's always fine chorus and orchestra provided their customary support.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.