WASHINGTON, March 10, 2013 – The Washington National Opera continued to unroll its Spring 2013 performance season this weekend with an astounding, nearly perfect new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma at the Kennedy Center Opera House. In her debut performance of the title role in a fully staged production, exciting young soprano Angela Meade thrilled WNO devotees with her nearly mind-blowing mastery of Bellini’s most challenging music.
The relatively compact plot of Norma begins in medias res, as the Romans might say. The audience discovers in fairly short order that Gallic Druid high priestess Norma (Ms. Meade) has been carrying on a strictly clandestine affair with the occupying Roman proconsul Pollione (tenor Rafael Davila). That’s compromised her exalted position, a fact made worse by the fact that the illicit relationship has produced two children whose existence she must carefully conceal.
Making matters worse, Pollione has abandoned Norma and, unbeknownst to her, he’s also taken up with a novice priestess, Adalgisa (mezzo Dolora Zajick). Norma’s father, Gallic leader Oroveso (bass Dmitry Belosselskiy), is eager to gather forces to drive the Romans out. But he’s held back by Norma who, for fairly obvious reasons, has not yet received the go-ahead sign from heaven. This entire scenario is bound to have an unhappy ending, as indeed it does.
Although written for the 1831-32 season of La Scala in the bel canto style for which Bellini was justly famous, Norma looks ahead to the verismo, or “sung drama” style of the late 19th century which relies less on showy arias. That said, Norma’s famous Act I aria/cavatina “Casta diva” (“Chaste goddess”)—a fervent prayer to the goddess of the moon caps off Norma’s initial grand entrance—is widely regarded as one of the most memorable moments in the history of opera.
Ms. Meade has been accorded glowing reviews for her past roles. But we think we can safely say that everyone in the hall was spellbound by her performance of this signature solo Saturday evening in her first-ever WNO appearance. As she began to sing, it took only a few bars before everyone in the opera house knew that something special was happening as the room fell almost completely silent.
The nuance, the delivery, the quiet passion and compassion that lie locked within the printed pages of Bellini’s score—all this and more was suddenly and entirely liberated by a lustrous, wide ranging, and generous soprano instrument that reached deeply into heart and soul unearthing again and again, the profound, emotional human longing for peace, love, compassion and understanding that all of us share yet rarely seem to acknowledge.
The emotion was there, most certainly, but so was this singer’s exceptional command of technique. Breath control, articulation, precise yet almost imperceptible mini-crescendi and decrescendi added to the magical effect produced by her voice—an effect further burnished as it was by the perfection of her phrasing and diction.
Still another marvel was the seeming effortlessness of her ornamentation and passagework, offered not as attention-getting, crowd-pleasing coloratura acrobatics, but as understated, gossamer-winged embellishments of the underlying theme.
But Ms. Meade’s performance here—and indeed throughout the entire evening—demonstrated the rare kind of vocal mastery that surpasses all understanding or reason. The opening night audience instinctively recognized that they’d heard and witnessed something very special indeed, demonstrating their hearty approval with sustained, thunderous shouts and applause, first after the last bar of “Casta diva” had been carried off to the gods—and once again after the final curtain.
Norma is such a commanding presence in Bellini’s opera that one can tend to neglect mention of the other soloists who ably carry this opera’s supporting roles. That’s scarcely fair, however, as each plays a key part in the music and the drama.
That’s particularly true of mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick who sings Adalgisa in this production. A naïve, up-and-coming Druid priestess whose innocently become Pollione’s latest conquest, Adalgisa is entirely unaware of his earlier involvement with Norma—that is, until she asks Norma for permission to resign her position to marry this scarcely noble Roman.
Similar to Ms. Meade, Ms. Zajick is also able to convey considerable nobility even through the betrayal, the outrage, and the hurt that batter her character like an unexpected whirlwind. In addition, Ms. Zajick sang flawlessly in the several brief, tight duets she shared with Ms. Meade at key points, particularly in Act II.
The role of Pollione, like the roles of Don José in Carmen and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, one of those odd, loser-tenor roles in which our hero actually seems to be anything but heroic. Pollione is a thoroughgoing cad throughout all of Norma, save for those final redeeming moments when, after it’s far too late, he finally grasps the depth of the love he’s so casually and cruelly abandoned.
As Pollione, Mr. Davila demonstrated a clean, powerful, but not overwhelming voice that seemed at one with his character—an instrument that gradually bloomed as the evening progressed, and blossomed in the opera’s final, climactic moments when his character at last achieves a fleeting nobility.
A delightful surprise in this production was the forceful, authoritative, yet surprisingly supple voice of bass Dmitry Belosselskiy. Key to both the opening and closing scenes of Norma, Mr. Belosselskiy’s Oroveso embodies the type of stalwart leader that his cohorts will readily respect and faithfully follow. Mr. Belosselskiy demonstrates his powers primarily through the impressive quality of his commanding voice—one of those superbly deep, yet never gravelly bass voices for which Russian singers alone seem to hold the exclusive patent.
In minor roles, a pair of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young artists rounded out the cast. Mezzo Julia Mintzer did quite well in her brief turn as Norma’s maidservant and confidante Clotilde. Tenor Mauricio Miranda, however, seemed a little nervous as Pollione’s friend, Flavio.
WNO’s chorus did a bang-up job in each Bellini’s numerous choral opportunities, as opposed to the slightly less even performance of the chorus performing during last week’s opening performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. We’d attribute at least part of this seeming “improvement,” however, to the simple fact that director Anne Bogart kept them mostly front and center (save for their offstage moments). This simple move nearly always allows for greater clarity in choral output, and surprising and a little disappointing that many opera directors neglect to remember this. Fortunately, Ms. Bogart wasn’t one of them.
Ms. Bogart’s steady direction proved quite effective throughout the entire evening’s performance. The movement of the cast in is actually quite limited by the nature of the set itself (of which more in a moment). That’s rendered less problematic by Ms. Bogart, who makes the most of the formality and ritual inherent in the opera’s subject matter and turns it, as well as the tightness of the space to the advantage of the singers.
The only stage business that seemed a little fussy Saturday revolved around the numerous entrances and exits of a bevy of lithe dancers who served as ceremonial vestal virgins. Their Egyptian-like routines gave their scenes an exotic air, but were repeated perhaps a bit too often.
We’d be remiss in not putting in a mostly good word for the WNO orchestra whose warm yet finely calibrated accompaniment of the singers under the baton of Daniele Rustioni proved another plus in this outstanding production. From time to time, however, instrumental entrances jumped offsides, if just a bit. Hopefully they’ll prove a bit tighter in the remaining performances, although in the end, this was but a momentary annoyance.
Neil Patel’s single, flexible set, with its suggestions both of a walled town and a hastily constructed wooden fort, were surprisingly effective in focusing the action of the story while not overwhelming it.
Its steep, undulating public square/sacred grove was a little difficult at times for the cast to negotiate, and its wooden planks and wavy appearance seemed oddly psychedelic when one focused on this for any period of time. But the main virtue of this element was to force the arrangement of soloists and chorus something like a choral ensemble on choir risers. This, in turn, had the positive effect on the overall vocal ambience by helping provide greater reflection, clarity, and resonance.
Aside from the odd choice of outfitting Pollione in a leather trench coat, à la Neo in the “Matrix” film trilogy, James Schuette’s occasionally eccentric costuming choices did conjure up a decent semblance of ancient Gaul during the Roman occupation.
Minor quibbles aside, WNO’s current production of Norma is absolutely one of the best and most fully realized we’ve seen in recent memory. If you’re not a season ticket holder and have been wavering about whether you should buy a ticket to this production, we’d advise you to waver no more.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars.)
WNO’s Norma continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through March 24. For tickets and information on this and other WNO performances, link to the Kennedy Center’s WNO web pages here.
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