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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Opera Review: The Diva Has Landed

Angela Meade brings Norma to Washington.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Dolora Zajick (left) and Angela Meade in the Washington National Opera's
new production of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma.
Photo by Scott Suchman © 2013 Washington National Opera/The Kennedy Center
Soprano Angela Meade staked her claim in the bel canto repertory this month when she opened a new production of that most elusive of operas, Bellini's Norma at the Washington National Opera. Ms. Meade has drawn much attention in the press (including on this blog) as a throwback to the old-school sopranos who helped revive interest in this repertory in the last century. At Tuesday night's performance the question remained: Did she really have what it took to take on the role of Bellini's high priestess?

The answer is...mostly. The title part of Norma is one of the toughest roles in the repertory, forcing the singer to portray almost every conceivable emotion: from religious ecstasy to murderous, child-killing rage and finally, suicide in the course of three hours. Although conductor Daniele Rustico did a commendable job with Bellini's spare orchestration, success in this opera rests on the leading lady's shoulders. Making matters worse, Norma's opening aria "Casta diva" was the bread and butter of  Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, the two most venerated sopranos of the 20th century.

Ms. Meade's performance matched neither of those great ladies, and was better for it. She started softly, moving up into the famous portamento passage with a wide vibrato that, like Dame Joan's dipped slightly in pitch when she sang the dotted rhythms on "A noi volgi  il bel sembian."  produced exciting results when she moved up into her head voice, carrying off the climactic phrases in a slow rapture of sound, with hushed, expert accompaniment from coductor Daniele Rustioni. It was a warm-up for better things to come.

With the big tune safely disposed of, Ms. Meade threw herself into the middle of the opera's Druidic love triangle. Adalgisa was veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick, a great vocal talent but an unlikely handmaiden to the much younger Ms. Meade. Caught between these two formidable ladies: tenor Rafael Davila as the two-timing Roman officer Pollione, who fathered two (secret) children with Norma before turning his attentions to Adalgisa. The tension between the three singers exploded in the electric Act I trio that brought down the curtain and showed how exciting well-sung bel canto could be.

The most thrilling vocal fireworks came between Ms. Meade and Ms. Zajick, as they launched headlong into "Oh, non tremare o perfido". Whether spitting venom at each other over their mutual love for Pollione or swearing fealty in an impressive Act II friendship duet, these two singers showed that they were perfectly matched. The voices moved in tandem up and down the fioratura passages, an extraordinary achievement that is the operatic equivalent of juggling large knives. Ms. Zajick also shone in her own spotlight scenes, showing that her rich, dusky mezzo can still seduce the listener.

Pollione does not have as much music as his two girlfriends, but Mr. Davila made the most of an ungrateful part. It helps that he has a noble stage presence to match his golden-toned tenor, an impressive instrument that can be pushed to higher volumes without degenerating into a bleat. He was most impressive in his Act II confrontation with Norma, standing his ground with Ms. Meade and finally making amends for his character's callous decisions. Mention should also be made of Dmitri Belosselskiy as a bearish Oroveso, sympathetic in his Act II scene with Norma.

Director Anne Bogart has given the Kennedy Center a spare, unspecific production that evokes the woods of Gaul in white birch, projections, and an unusual, curved-wave stage surface made of planks that seem to flow like a river but looked uncomfortable for the choristers. This boardwalk was interrupted by a small circular depression where most of the actors spend the evening when they're not sitting on a well-placed Scandinavian bench. James Schuette's traditional costume were a jarring contrast. Barney O'Hanlon's choreography made the Druid dancers look like they were in a Robert Wilson production of Aida, but the idea of having the pagan celebrants enter through the house worked very well indeed.

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