Review: Star Singers Lift a Muddled ‘Norma’ at the Metropolitan Opera

Mr. McVicar has directed Ms. Radvanovsky at the Met in Donizetti’s Tudor queens trilogy, which, in a feat of vocal and dramatic stamina, she sang within a single season (2015-16). Bellini’s Norma, one of the most daunting soprano roles in opera, presents special difficulties. Her music is replete with the kind of long-lined lyrical writing that defines the early 19th-century Italian bel canto style. Yet the volatile, jealous Norma continually unleashes chilling outbursts.

Ms. Radvanovsky, with her bright, powerful voice and dramatic fervor, excelled in Norma’s moments of torment and fury. Her sound has a grainy cast, a slightly hard-edged quality. To her many admirers, that sound is the essence of raw, true emotion, something that came through on Monday from Ms. Radvanovsky’s first entrance.

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‘Norma’ at the Met

Scenes from David McVicar’s new production of the Bellini classic, starring Sondra Radvanovsky, Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Calleja.

By METROPOLITAN OPERA on Publish Date September 25, 2017. .

The scene is a forest grove sacred to the druids, and depicted here by a tangle of tall, branchless trees. Though there is a hint of the surreal about this forest, the set looks old-fashioned, even a little paltry.

Norma, the daughter of Oroveso, the clan’s chief (the muscular-toned bass Matthew Rose), has been seeking guidance at the temple. The warriors, looking rough and ready and brandishing swords, want Norma to sanction an attack on the Romans. When Ms. Radvanovsky appears — her long hair loose and unkempt, wearing a filmy gown — she looks like she has barely come out of a trance.

Norma counsels peace, at least for now, in a charged stretch of recitative that leads to the great aria “Casta Diva,” as she prays to the moon goddess to bestow solace and patience. This aria benefits when sung by a soprano with plush sound and velvety legato, not Ms. Radvanovsky’s selling points.

Norma has an ulterior motive, since she is stalling for time, hiding from her people that she is their enemy’s lover. Ms. Radvanovsky’s slightly piercing sound tellingly exposed the subtext of Norma’s intentions, yet rose to sensitive, high pianissimos in tender phrases.

There was some roughness and smudgy coloratura passagework in her singing, moments when she sacrificed clear Italian diction in pursuit of intensity. Her performance was courageously exposed, emotionally as well as vocally.

Ms. DiDonato’s Adalgisa has, for some reason left unclear, a completely different look. Her hair is blonde and short, almost punkish; her simple dress falls from one shoulder like some waif’s.

She exudes youthful longing and fretful confusion. Her melting tone and natural richness were ideal for Adalgisa’s elegant, wistful phrases. But Ms. DiDonato, typically expert at dispatching coloratura roulades and passagework, had some patches when her voice seemed pushed.

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Ms. Radvanovsky as Norma and Joyce DiDonato, with her head in lap, as Adalgisa in “Norma.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Still, she got to the core of the character, especially in the confession scene, one of the most inspired in the opera. Adalgisa comes to Norma’s home, which here looks like some gargantuan forest igloo made of branches and sticks, to confess that she has broken her vow of chastity and fallen in love. At first, Norma is motherly and understanding. After all, though she keeps this to herself, she’s been there.

The tenor Joseph Calleja is Pollione, the Roman proconsul and Norma’s lover who, we soon learn, has now fallen for Adalgisa. Though Mr. Calleja’s voice is by nature burnished and ardent, he has a tendency to sing with a slightly nasal quality that can result in a pinched tone. That was a problem here.

Also, perhaps with Mr. McVicar’s encouragement, Mr. Calleja played Pollione, at least initially, as entitled and self-absorbed, and seemed uncomfortable doing so. There was a telling moment when Norma erupts, furious and humiliated to discover her lover’s betrayal. This Pollione rubs it in: Mr. Calleja, lifting Ms. Radvanovsky’s chin in his hand, almost mocked her as he confirmed the worst.

Whatever these frustrations with Mr. McVicar’s staging, the greatness of the opera came through in scene after scene. In Act II, Norma, half-crazed with despair, approaches her sleeping boys with the intention of killing them, rather than letting Pollione scurry them off to Rome. Ms. Radvanovsky brought tremulous poignancy to these aching phrases.

The long, complex scene when Norma and Adalgisa work through their crisis and discover sisterly friendship was, as it should be, the highlight of the evening. Whether trading soaring lines or joyously skipping up the scale in perfectly synchronized thirds, Ms. Radvanovsky and Ms. DiDonato brought out the best in one another.

The conductor Carlo Rizzi led an energetic performance. When Norma, now ready for vengeance, calls upon her warriors to revolt, Mr. Rizzi drove the choristers to frenzied intensity as they cried for blood. Mr. McVicar added savage-looking extras wielding flaming torches to gin up the action.

Was Mr. McVicar compensating with these heavy-handed touches for not having a more resonant concept to begin with? I still have a Salzburg Festival production from 2015 in mind, staged for Cecilia Bartoli and updated to France in the time of World War II, with the druids presented as French resistance fighters, an apt reflection of the opera’s clash-of-cultures theme.

During the enthusiastic ovation at the Met, the stage lights went up and I could finally see what everyone really looked like. I know “Norma” is set in a moonlit forest. But must a director be so literal about it?

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Source: New York Times

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