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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