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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Norma

Two great divas; one bel canto classic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Angela Meade (left) and Sondra Radvanovsky are appearing in Norma this season...
...though not together. Photoshop by the author.
This October run of Vincenzo Bellini's most famous opera is one show you may want to see twice. Two great singers take on the title role, with Sondra Radvanovsky singing the first six performances, followed by Angela Meade in the last three. In all performances, Kate Aldrich is Adalgisa and Aleksandrs Antonenko is Pollione.

Of the two singers, Ms. Radvanovsky is the more established star, with first-cast starring roles in a slew of Met productions and one memorable performance two seasons ago when she subbed in as Verdi's Aida. Ms. Meade is the rising force, a bel canto specialist whose plush, apparently effortless technique sharply divides critical opinion. Since Norma is an opera that changes radically depending on who's singing it, a true opera geek (like this one) is already making plans to see it twice.

And what a role it is. Bellini created Norma for the great Maria Malibran, loading the role with a wide range of dramatic challenges and stringent vocal requirements. The role starts with "Casta diva," one of the signature arias of the bel canto repertory. From there, the role just becomes more challenging, as  the Celtic priestess confronts the the fallout of her illicit affair with a wayward Roman field commander.

An ideal performance of Norma has to create raw emotion and rage while singing with death-defying technique. If all that isn't enough, any soprano singing this role has to suffer comparison to Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas, who each made Norma a signature role.

Norma opens Sept. 30.

Recording Recommendations
Callas? Sutherland? Sills? Norma is a role that can make or break a soprano's career, and the many recordings of it in the catalogue have led to some decidedly mixed results. Singers like Jane Eaglen, Renata Scotto and even Cecilia Bartoli have taken on the challenge, but the definitive singers to start with are Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

Coro e Orchestra della Scala cond. Tullio Serafin (EMI, 1954)
Norma: Maria Callas
Pollione: Mario Fillipeschi
Adalgisa: Ebe Stignani

Coro e Orchestra della Scala cond. Tullio Serafin (EMI, 1960)
Norma: Maria Callas
Pollione: Franco Corelli
Adalgisa: Christa Ludwig
For many opera lovers, Maria Callas is the title character in Norma. This was her most famous role. The mono original is essential, with one of the soprano's finest interpretations and the voice caught in her prime. The star-studded stereo remake (with Franco Corelli and Christa Ludwig) also has much to recommend it, although the glories of the Callas voice had started to fade later in her career.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Richard Bonynge (London, 1962)
Norma: Joan Sutherland
Pollione: John Alexander
Adalgisa: Marilyn Horne
Joan Sutherland recorded Norma twice, but the definitive performance is her earlier analog set on Decca, and it's worth hearing just to hear the Australian soprano sing with Marilyn Horne.

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