The new Metropolitan Opera production of Norma, which opened the company’s season, is the most intimate presentation of Vincenzo Bellini’s classic that I’ve ever seen.
Norma is an impressive monument and has been called “the Mount Everest of operas.” Yet director David McVicar sees it as a family story, and conductor Carlo Rizzi conducts it that way too, with a touch that’s lighter than usual for a 19th Century Italian opera.
Druid Priestess Norma and her acolyte Adalgisa have both violated their vows of chastity. Not only that, they both have slept with the same man. He is Pollione, commander of the ruling Roman army. Norma is raising the two children she had by Pollione but, apparently, all of the Druids were unaware. When the women’s eyes are opened, jealousy and rage ensue. Norma plans to murder her children to spare them the disgrace. Norma curses Pollione, saying “My burning fury will engulf you like the wind and waves. Roman blood will flow like water.”
While the directorial approach resembles Verdi’s La Traviata, these Druids and Romans with their high-flown language aren’t the Germont family. Still, McVicar makes a plausible case for an intimate interpretation, with simple sets by Robert Jones. Aside from her servant Clotilde, Adalgisa is the only woman Norma speaks to (or sings to) in the entire opera. Their relationship clearly is a warm one, and McVicar extrapolates that they are companions and confidants.
He directs Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa to be at Norma’s side during Norma’s solo aria, “Casta diva” (a prayer to the moon goddess), arranging her dress. Elsewhere, again when the libretto does not call for it, he puts Adalgisa alongside Norma. Moritz Junge is the costume designer. While Norma has dark robes and hair, DiDonato’s Adalgisa is in light off-the-shoulder smocks and her hair is blonde. Presumably this is to provide a contrast of light versus dark, and to magnify a generational difference. Norma seems to be in her 40s and Adalgisa could be half that age.
Many reviewers faulted the visual and the aural aspects of this new production. I, however, see the logic, and I accept McVicar’s approach as a viable interpretation. I even accept the almost-constant darkness of the stage which other critics have excoriated. (One critic said “the cast staggers around in antique obscurity.”) The opera, after all, takes place in a forest, at night.
When it comes to conductor Rizzi’s contribution, however, I draw the line. His deferential, slow-moving accompaniment robs the opera of passion. Norma became famous for its blood-and-guts drama. The “critical edition” that was recorded by Decca with Cecilia Bartoli, is incisive and tumultuous. Ricci’s easy-going approach prevents some of his singers from displaying their talents at their fullest.
Sondra Radvanovsky, the Norma, has a naturally large voice. In a Philadelphia recital last month, she showed off gutsy chest projection in an aria from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. But in this production, her forays into chest voice are limited, and her high passages are refined rather than powerful. In the scenes where she’s angry, we don’t hear her snarl. She sings with good taste, lovely phrasing and fine musicianship, and she weaves her long flowing lines with beautiful legato. She is touching as a mother and lover, but not a thrilling, larger-than-life firebrand.
Norma’s Roman lover, Pollione, is sung by tenor Joseph Calleja, whose instrument is lyrical rather than clarion. He can’t produce the brilliant thrust of past Polliones such as Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Giovanni Martinelli and Mario del Monaco, whose voices better suited the dominating personality of this military commander with a history as a sexual predator.
Bass Matthew Rose has nice legato while his low notes lack sonority. DiDonato sings with the most comprehensive command of musicianship plus vocal incisiveness. She has strength and presence of her middle voice. Her duets with Radvanovsky are lovely, although she chooses to take a lower note instead of joining Radvanovsky’s high ending so, again, a bit of excitement is lacking.
Visually, the production benefits in its HD broadcasts to movie theaters. The camera lenses add brightness to the dark scenes, and the closeups bring out the best things in McVicar’s personal approach. For instance, when Norma prepares to kill her children we get a clear view of her anointing the blade of her dagger and testing its sharpness. Video director Gary Halvorson does a superlative job of improving upon “real” life (or at least theatrical life.)
The production continues through December 16 with some cast changes, including Philadelphia-based Angela Meade in the title role. The dates for encore HD screenings will be announced later.
Running Time: Three hours and 5 minutes, including one intermission.
Norma plays through December 16, 2017 at The Metropolitan Opera – 30 Lincoln Center Plaza, in New York, NY. Tickets are available online. For information about HD screenings, visit the Fathom Events website.