Saturday, November 23, 2013

A surfeit of Normas

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn I have once again traveled to witness a Norma performance. There seems to be a surfeit of them in the land nowadays. I drove to Baltimore on Friday, November 22, to hear Baltimore Concert Opera, who so charmed me recently with their L'Elisir d'Amore, assay this monumental work. Once again in Baltimore's venerable Engineers' Club, BCO gave a performance that was a study in contrasts.

Courtesy Baltimore Concert Opera
Francesca Mondanaro was the only cast member who had performed the opera before, and the contrast between her performance and the others' was remarkable. She was the only singer who performed her role off book, and was completely immersed in the role. Her acting was committed and believable. Hers was a priestess I didn't want to anger! Ms. Mondanaro has a huge, dark, luscious voice--a Turandot or an Ariadne. Yet she has precise coloratura, trills, and high notes the envy of some other Normas with bigger names I've heard. She seemed to sing easily the particularly fiendish, very high phrases that have been the undoing of many sopranos with higher, less dramatic voices. She was at her best vocally in those moments, when controlling her Range Rover of a voice for the demands of, say, a tiny alley in Manhattan's Wall Street district. When she got on the highway, to extend this ridiculous metaphor, she lost of some of the finesse, some of the control, and her sound seemed overproduced when she sang full throttle.

Pollione was tenor Jason Wickson. Mr. Wickson sings big tenor roles--the program lists Florestan, Dick Johnson (La Fanciulla del West) and Erik (Der Fliegende Hollander) among recent/upcoming engagements. I found him on YouTube singing a scene from Peter Grimes, and singing it well. His singing of Pollione, however, seemed a bit blustery--not an unpleasant sound, but heavier than what I heard in online. I regret to report that he didn't have the same level of involvement in his role as the other cast members.

One wonders whether the limitations of the Engineers' Club ballroom, beautiful as it is, were factors in the singing issues Ms. Mondanaro and Mr. Wickson seemed to experience. Perhaps the long shape of the room, the sound-deadening materials, and the closeness of the audience contribute to acoustic conditions that singers are tempted to deal with in ways that impair their singing. You will recall I had doubts about William Davenport's Nemorino in that room, but all my doubts flew away upon hearing him at Opera Delaware's Grand Opera House. Should Baltimore Concert Opera consider other performance spaces? 

Bass Matthew Curran
Bass Matthew Curran's scenes as Oroveso were sung with beautiful, mellow sound and full commitment to the moment, even though he was using a score.  His singing never failed, and neither did his commitment. I liked his Oroveso much better than the Oroveso I recently heard at The Metropolitan Opera. 

Rounding out the quartet was the Adalgisa of soprano Jennifer Holbrook. A surprising casting choice, for Adalgisa is usually a mezzo. (Last spring I saw Dolora Zajick perform an Adalgisa that was magical.) Ms. Holbrook has a beautiful sound, and according to the recent/upcoming credits in the program, her career is beginning to take off. Her singing was fully equal to the demands of the role, and her commitment to her role was nearly equal to that of Ms. Mondanaro.

At the podium was conductor Tyson Deaton, who rallied the pickup chorus of mostly Peabody students, the problematic 88-key orchestra of James Harp, and the forces on stage quite successfully.

To many operaphiles, Norma is the ultimate opera. To me, this is one of opera's most successful marriages of beauty of music, beauty of singing, and dramatic impact. When done well, the finale packs a punch that would leave a linebacker weeping, with its slow buildup of dramatic and musical tension. There are vocal moments that illustrate the characters' emotional states far better than words alone could possibly do--rage or exultation or fear and vulnerability. There is enough to please both the immature operaphile who loves vocal fireworks but doesn't yet appreciate dramatic impact, while also pleasing the afficionado who knows the work by heart and tears up at the very thought of Norma's "Son io!" in the last act finale. It should be no wonder I would go to such great lengths to hear and see this opera. It never fails to excite me, for the star of the show is always, in the end, Mr. Bellini.


John Yohalem said...

Thrilled to read such a fine notice of Mondanaro, a major talent being unaccountably ignored by other major companies.

And I totally agree with you about the greatness of Norma.

Taminophile said...

Thanks John. I especially wanted to confer with you, knowing you'd seen Ms. Mondanaro's staged Norma performance.