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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Opera Broadcast Review: Buzz-saw and Dynamo

The Met’s new Norma gives the people what they want.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Woman on top: Sondra Radvanovsky (center) and Joyce DiDonato (right) in Act I of Norma.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
In the twelve years since Peter Gelb took the helm of the Metropolitan Opera, the company's opening night has been a splashy, if tricky proposition. Splashy because it's a big glitzy occasion with celebrities in gowns on the red carpet, a big fancy dinner afterwards and for the little people (like your humble correspondent) a free public simulcast on the electronic wonderwall televisions of Times Square with the opera pumped through speakers. For Mr. Gelb, Opening Night (the caps are his) has been the chance to premiere a new production at the Met. This new Norma (directed by Sir David McVicar and starring Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce Di Donato) provided every opportunity for a a slam dunk.


The Wagnerian spirit was present in the conducting of Carlo Rizzi, who led the scurrying strings and slashing chords of the overture with gusto. For the next three hours, Mr. Rizzi brought the same enthusiasm, care and detail to  the powerhouse voices that were about to stalk the stage. When the curtain rose, it showed that director Sir David McVicar had settled on a traditional staging (the sets are by Robert Jones) with wild Gallic forests. Eventually the stage elevator rose, revealing an underground cave dwelling for Norma herself that looked ideal, especially for the three acts of Wagner's Die Walk├╝re. 

First up was Joseph Calleja as Pollione. The Maltese tenor has matured, filling out vocally and reminded one of a great Italian singer of the not-so-recent past. He brought strength and brilliance to the part of the overly virile Roman proconsul. Pollione has had two illegitimate children with the supposedly chaste Norma, but now favors her handmaiden Adalgisa. To his credit he made this caddish fellow’s later arc credible, providing evidence of guilt, reflection and redemption as he sang with Ms. Radvanovsky in their show-stopping Act II duet.

Singing Norma requires a soprano who can convey almost every color in the dramatic spectrum, often by traversing fearsome, exposed chasms of sound protected only by a gossamer bridge of orchestration. She must be at once virginal and world-weary, vengeful and plaintive, fire turning to ice and back to fire again. Bellini wrote the role for Giudetta Pasta and its legendary history (sung by, among others, Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland) only adds to the pressures placed on the leading lady.

Norma makes her grand entrance in the middle of Act I, and must immediately sing "Casta diva," the hymn to the goddess that is at once the opera’s showpiece and centerpiece. Ms. Radvanovsky was up for the challenge, pouring out a silvery cascade of sound and capturing the humanity behind the music, singing that is so technically fraught that it is often hard to make beautiful. She managed though her voice hardened and broadened in the scenes that followed, but that’s to be expected and added to the characters humanity,

Strain was audible in the big Act II duet with Pollione, as she went from murderous rage to a final despair. However, at one point an important pianissimo note seemed to vanish into air, and that mercifully happened as the opera was almost over. Still, Ms. Radvanovsky was stirring and epic as she revealed her guilty secret to her father and the assembled Druid warriors, and her walk into the fire with Mr. Calleja had all the trappings of epic heroism that one comes to expect from this beloved opera. 

The role of Adalgisa, Normas’s acolyte and secret romantic rival was played by Joyce DiDonato. She is not ideal for the part, lacking lower-register bloom, but she was glorious in the Act I scene with Mr. Calleja and the subsequent grand duet with Ms. Radvanovsky, supporting her as the singers careened down stepladders of notes. This is difficult stuff for each artist, as their intricate interaction is made more so when the cocksure Pollione appears and his duplicity is revealed. As the duet became a trio, the singers and audience were suddenly off to the races. 

Ms. Radvanovsky vented, Ms. DiDonato pleaded and Mr. Calleja preened, as the singers launched the big two-part trio that contains another of Bellini's memorable tunes Here, the delicate crystalline structures of this music (spurred forth from the pit by the exhortations of Mr. Rizzi) vibrated and shook. However, they held firm, and the three singers ran this long gauntlet of forgiveness, betrayal and rage. The three leads provided a complimentary visual and dramatic presence, working closely with the soprano in the big scenes, evidence of Sir David careful involvement.

Bass Matthew Rose brought a burly voice to Oroveso: with his spear, scale mail and manly facial scars: he looked and acted like he had stepped out of a much more Germanic opera. Michelle Bradley and Adam Diegel were promising artists stuck in the operas tiny but necessary comprimario roles. The chorus was  enthusiastic, drawn to a sharp edge by the relentless drilling of Donald Palumbo. As for the staging, this wild and Wagnerian version of Gaul had the same bustling energy as Mr. McVicar’s past stagings at the Met. Add a couple of flying horses, and the sets and costumes for this Norma would be perfect for the company's next Ring.

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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.