Otello at the Met

The Met has opened this season with a slightly belated acknowledgement that a lot of blackface is not a good look for a big mainstream American institution. Unfortunately the resulting pale production of Otello, which opened on Monday and I saw on Thursday, doesn’t have anything else new to say. The production does, however, have a major selling point, one that hasn’t been nearly as widely discussed: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electrifying conducting.

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Norma again: Some Gaul

Like any good New York opera fan, I heeded the calls of prominent persons and went to go see Angela Meade and Jamie Barton headline the second cast of Norma last week. (Sorry that I’m slow to write, but some people indicated they were still interested so I figured better late than never.) I arrived with high expectations, but I only saw one breakthrough, not two.

Angela Meade sounds like she finds Norma a more natural fit than Sondra Radvanovsky did. Perhaps her singing sounds easier, period. She’s got a sweet, silky tone that slides easily through the coloratura and still has the force to fill the house. She struggled with breath in “Casta diva,” cutting several phrases short, but improved over the course of the evening and showed real force in the final scene. She’s fairly musical and varied her vocal color more than I have heard from her before, but has a bit of a tic when it comes to high notes, singing many of them pp, a few ff, and few anywhere in between.

But if her singing appears effortless, her acting is anything but. She is trying, but it’s a matter of indicating rather than embodying, and was rarely convincing. Most problematic were the several times where she brandished her dagger at someone–her children, etc.–where I never believed in the least she could stab anyone. I was up in the very last row of the Family Circle (more on that in a little bit), which is a bad place to see acting at all, but I could still detect a severe charisma and conviction deficit. So while this was a vocally successful Norma, and that’s nothing to sneeze at, it was not a particularly moving one.

But Jamie Barton’s Adalgisa was a complete performance. Her voice is large, not Stephanie Blythe-giant but big for this role. She’s got a dense, voluptuous, viola-like mezzo and not only phrases elegantly but sings with genuine dramatic intent and direction, and from what I could tell from up in the rafters is an expressive actress as well. The tessitura of Act 2 seemed a little high for her, but she got out that high C just fine. It was an exciting performance and I think we can expect more great things from her very soon. (Watch a video of her singing at the end of this post.)

As Pollione, Aleksandrs Antonenko was a holdover from the first cast. He was rather better this time around–still blunt, but less clumsy. You can read my thoughts on the crappiness of the production here.

It had been months since I had been up in the back of the Family Circle. Student tickets have been available for almost everything recently and they are (counting fees) less expensive, plus you get to see and don’t have to plan far in advance. But those seats are often in the back corners of the orchestra, where the sound is drab. I kind of forgot how glorious the acoustic is up high: you trade visual presence for aural presence. The further away it looks, the closer it sounds. It makes me wonder to what extent the size of the Met has been a determining factor in the house’s production aesthetic, beyond the difficulties of filling the large stage. Some of the most noisy and devoted patrons—though probably not the richest ones—are sitting where the architecture renders the visual aspects secondary. (Unless you go for the scenic equivalent of carpet bombing, and, well, who is the house’s signature director?) There is a certain school of thought that defines creative production and acting primarily as compensation for less than distinguished singing. While I am sure they found this Norma overall more satisfying than I did, I think that’s a limiting view and really a shame.

I will be missing the first FroSch later this week because I will be in Pittsburgh at the American Musicological Society’s annual meeting (do say hi if you’re there, readers). I’ll catch up with the Empress, Barak, and the gang next week.

Bellini, Norma. Metropolitan Opera, 10/28/2013.

Here’s Jamie, from last year’s Tucker Gala (which I wrote about here):

Photo copyright Marty Sohl/Met.

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Of chaste divas and broken legato

I went to see Norma at the Met on Thursday in part because, I confess, I had never seen Norma. This was not due to lack of opportunity but rather because I kept hearing about how Diva X couldn’t sing the title role to save her life and was committing a crime against the memory of Maria Callas/Claudia Muzio/Giuditta Pasta, because we all remember exactly what Pasta sounded like. Honestly, I should have just gone, because I have never quite understood why Norma  is supposed to be so special. From my admittedly fairly superficial knowledge of the piece, the role’s demands don’t seem radically different from those of some other formidable bel canto heroines—La sonnambula or Lucrezia Borgia for example—whose operas are not given such status. I wonder if, in part, it is because we need some role to serve as a summit of achievement. (Personally, I can appreciate Bellini’s way with a melody but I think Lucrezia is way more fun.) Does this have to do with twentieth-century performance history more than it does with the music? But I digress. Anyway, I finally ended up seeing it at the Met on Thursday.

Sondra Radvanovsky made an impressive stab at Norma, but she’s not quite there yet. Sometimes everything fell into place and it was great, and sometimes it was a work in progress. She’s got a very big voice with a highly distinctive color, a reedy dark quality with a fast and wide vibrato. At her best moments, she sang with urgency and conviction fitting the character, but sometimes the technical demands of the singing seemed to occupy her full attention and the drama and music slipped away. The opening of “Casta diva” was really lovely; she can sing the long phrases with real intent, but the vocalises at the ending seemed to lack any purpose. Technically, she can manage it, though a few high pianissimos were tenuous and the coloratura of the cabalettas was at times too careful to have any drive.

Of course the circumstances of this performance were against her, and there might be a different explanation for her unevenness. Riccardo Frizza’s conducting was sympathetic, but neither production nor supporting cast was any help. John Copley’s production mixes ancient stones and smooth modern curves with all the individual character of an investment bank lobby. The costumes are sparkly and jingly (Radvanovsky looked great in Ballo last season, but everything is horribly unflattering here), and the choral direction is non-existent. Nor does the staging seem to give the cast anything substantive to work with, character-wise. Let’s not talk about this production any more.

previous revival, but same set

As for the other singers, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Pollione has a powerful, dark voice and is rather exciting in his upper register. But this music exposed a shortage of finesse and variation in color that is less evident in more verismic repertoire. Kate Aldrich as Adalgisa did not have a good evening, sounding badly stretched and strained by the size of the house. She was thoroughly drowned out in her duets with Radvanovsky. I heard her sing a moderately-sized but enjoyable Carmen at the Met a few years ago and kind of wonder what happened. Similarly, I was saddened to see that the wobbly and undersized bass singing Oroveso was James Morris; this is not a happy way to end a distinguished career.

If you’re someone who believes Norma should only be put on as a special event, this performance will not satisfy you. But Radvanovsky is worth seeing, if you don’t mind the afterthought quality of the rest of it.

Note that some later performances will feature Angela Meade as Norma and the fantastic Jamie Barton as Adalgisa.

Norma. Metropolitan Opera, 10/13/2013. Production by John Copley (revival), conducted by Riccardo Frizza with Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Pollione), Kate Aldrich (Adalgisa), James Morris (Oroveso)

First photo copyright Marty Sohl/Met
Second photo copyright Beatriz Schiller/Met

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