Sunday, October 8, 2017

O rimembranza!

No one who has ever read this blog will be surprised to learn that I'm a hard-core Normaphile. From the moment I first heard "Mira O Norma" on a Marilyn Horne LP at a tender young age to to my first personal experience with the opera as a chorus member to my most recent experience seeing the opera via the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series, I can't get enough. The opera simply has everything: a compelling storyline, big chorus scenes contrasted with tender duets and moving solo scenes, and the opportunity--nay, the requirement--for phenomenal singing.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma
Photo:  New York Times
Saturday's Metropolitan Opera performance did not disappoint in any way. I had heard the Met's opening night performance of the work via Sirius XM Radio, but I was not prepared for the impact of seeing it [almost] live. The Met's new production by Sir David McVicar, with sets by Robert Jones and costumes by Moritz Junge, is raw and earthy and sheds new light on each character. I have never seen such an active staging of Norma's entrance aria "Casta diva", and was glad to see a logical dramatic transition to the cabaletta that follows. I liked Adalgisa's Aida-like moment when the Druids are singing of war but she knows that means killing the man she loves. The Norma-Pollione-Adalgisa confrontation in the Act I finale brought me to tears. And I found the sets both raw and opulent.

Joseph Calleja and Joyce Didonato
Photo: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera
I am a voice person. Voice, voice, voice. All three of the principals in the love triangle--Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma, Joyce Didonato as Adalgisa, and Joseph Calleja as Pollione--are great singing actors whom I've praised highly in these pages. None of them gave vocally perfect performances, but I didn't care. I didn't care. They were all amazing to see and hear in these roles. (And they all sounded even better on Saturday than they did on opening night.)

Hearing Ms. Radvanovsky in this role in 2013 completely changed the way I looked at her. In this performance, I was amazed by her vocal power and subtlety, the way she handled vocal challenges that have been the undoing of other sopranos I have heard, and her intensity as a deeply conflicted woman. I had been unconvinced that Adalgisa is a role that suits Joyce Didonato's enormous talents, but my resistance wore away as I watched her committed performance on Saturday. The scenes between Norma and Adalgisa were spellbinding for their dramatic power and their vocal beauty.

Joyce Didonato, Sondra Radvanovksy, anacronistic candles
Photo: Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera
I'm a big fan of Joseph Calleja, but there are times when he is not at his best vocally. This was not one of those times. His opening aria "Meco all'altar di Venere" was free of strain or vocal worry, and his high C was solid, felt like it belonged to his voice, which is not true for every tenor, and belonged at that moment in the aria. (One did wonder why he didn't take the sustained B-flat at the end of the aria, however.) The remainder of the role is certainly no walk in the park vocally or dramatically, and Mr. Calleja was equal to the challenge, especially in the Act II finale, when Pollione changes his affections yet again in returning to Norma. (In truth, Pollione is not a likeable man. But we quite like Mr. Calleja.)

Matthew Rose sang the sometimes ungratifying role of Oroveso beautifully, and actually gave the character dimension.

As always, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus gave solid and nuanced performances. I always expect this, and I haven't been disappointed yet. Conductor Carlo Rizzi was fun to watch when the camera featured him, and he brought out subtleties of phrasing and overall shape that distinguish a good performance from a great one.

We are fortunate that there will be many more performances of this production, including a cast change in December, when Angela Meade and Jamie Barton take over the roles of Norma and Adalgisa.