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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Norma

The Bellini bel canto classic returns with a new cast.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Angela Meade (top) and Jamie Barton in the 2013 production of Norma at the Met.
Photo © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Norma is one of those operas that is all about the soprano singing the title role. In this case, the Metropolitan Opera opened ts 2017-18 season with a new production by Sir David McVicar, starring Sondra Radvanovsky as the knife-wielding pagan priestess who reacts badly when she learns her boyfriend (the leader of the opposing Roman forces) is cheating on her....with her handmaiden. Now in the first revival of the show Angela Meade takes over the title role.

What is Norma?
Norma is Vincenzo Bellini's most famous opera, and a pinnacle of the bel canto style. It is a vehicle for a star soprano to deliver a tour de force performance that can thrill an audience and possibly make (or break) a career. It was the signature role of both Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, and has been sung by most of the great bel canto sopranos in history.

What's Norma about?
Norma is the leader of an order of Druids, a pagan priestess in Gaul (present-day France) in the days of the Roman Empire. She fell in love with (and bore two children with) the local Roman proconsul, Pollione. Pollione has fallen in love with Norma's handmaiden, Adalgisa, leading to Norma flying into a murderous rage. The opera ends with a reconciled Norma and Pollione sacrificing themselves on a pre-Wagnerian funeral pyre.

What's the music like?
Bellini was a master of writing for the voice and he was at his absolute peak in Norma. The first act's centerpiece is the invocation "Casta diva," a delicate piece of writing that is like a finely wrought crystal chandelier in sound. The second half features the great confrontation between Norma and Adalgisa, where soprano and mezzo race each other up and down steps and ladders of sound, occasionally coming down in unison to thrilling effect.

Who's in it?
This first revival of this new production pairs Angela Meade with Jamie Barton, two singers who have sung this role together in the past. From a 2013 Superconductor review: "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."  Joseph Colaneri conducts.

How's the production?
(From the September 2017 Superconductor review:
"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 Walküre."

Why should I see it?
Aside from the superb cast and gorgeous music this is an opera that can rise above itself to ascend into the ranks of the great dramas. It is an exciting night at the theater and a chance to hear "Casta diva" should never be passed up, but that doesn't mean you should skip out on the thrilling second act.

When does it open?
Norma returns Dec. 1.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Is there a Live in HD broadcast planned?
Yes it's scheduled for Oct. 7.

Which recording should I get?
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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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.