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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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Opera Review: Under the Serious Moonlight

Norma at the Metropolitan Opera. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The disco 'round: Sondra Radvanovsky enters in Act I of Norma.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera
The American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has risen to prominence on the international stage in the last decade, with a combination of genuine acting ability and a steel-cored lyric soprano that can glide between passages of soft dolce singing and the white-hot rage required of a tragic opera heroine. All of these admirable qualities were on display Monday night, as Ms. Radvanovsky sang her first Norma at the Met. This was the first revival of the Bellini opera in six years, and another step toward superstardom for this talented American soprano.

The title role in this opera is a major challenge. Bellini was writing for some of the finest voices of his day, among them the soprano Maria Malibran. With those artists to work with, he left most of the drama and emotion to the voices, soaring above a simple, at times skeletal orchestration. The writing is very exposed, and will soar or fall with the singer's ability to convey a wide range of emotions that change with frightening speed. In Norma herself, Bellini created  emotional modern heroine--a powerful woman in the middle of a difficult political situation who has suffered heartbreak and betrayal.

And if that's not enough, she starts out by singing Casta diva, one of the most famous tunes in the operatic repertory.

Ms. Radvanovsky met the multiple challenges of Norma with energy and aplomb, choosing a cool, somewhat bright tone for Casta diva. Although unappealing in the initial bars of the aria, this approach allowed the singer to manage the aria's tricky, flute-like ornamentation without burning herself out for the operatic hurdles to come. Once past this big aria, her character blossomed, as the listener was pulled into the bitter triangle of love, jealousy and death between the three principal characters.

Although this opera focuses unrelentingly its leading lady, Norma's plot relies on ensembles with Adalgisa, her acolyte-turned-romantic rival and Pollione, the feckless Roman commander who has, in turn seduced both women--and secretly fathered Norma's two children. Kate Aldrich was an excellent choice as Adalgisa, using her high mezzo to support the other singers but also finding moments to shine. Her long duet with Pollione, subsequent duet with Norma and the rip-roaring trio that ends Act I were all highlights. 

As the the second act started, Ms. Radvanovsky was confronted with the next hurdle: the scene where Norma contemplates killing her children. This proved to be a towering performance, one that increased in strength as the scene progressed. Ms. Radvanovsky stayed on top of the tricky swings of emotion that govern Norma's actions in the second act. She put a solid core of tone into her confrontation with Pollione (Aleksandrs Antonenko) moving confidently through Bellini's difficult intervals that so aptly embody homicidal rage. This contrasted with a sublime sense of resignation (and a lovely, floated pianissimo) as Norma decided to acknowledge her sins and commit ritual suicide (with a contrite Pollione) in the final scene.

Pollione is not a lovable figure--in his callow frontier romances he is a prototype for one B.F. Pinkerton--but Mr. Antonenko gave an appealing performance. His bright tenor had enough power for the early scenes, leavened with sincerity and regret as his double-dealing was brutally revealed. He had the combination of tone and stamina for this demanding part, and was a compelling partner to Ms. Radvanovsky in their long Act II duet. Although he is at the twilight of his career, mention must be made of James Morris as Oroveso--the voice is a wisp of what it used to be but he still projects grandeur and a fatherly presence.

Riccardo Frizza conducted the score with a wide range of tempos, electing to accompany the singers instead of overpowering them. This Met production (by John Copley, first seen at the house in 2001) is an unlovely one, with spare sets and a giant cut-out of the moon looming over a mostly bare stage. Cadres of spear-toting Celts (the Met chorus, in excellent form) provide the only visual stimulus. Yet perhaps that's for the best. In performing Bellini, it's all about the voices.

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