David McVicar’s new production of Bellini’s masterpiece opened the Met’s current season last month. It was telecast last Saturday, Oct 7. I was in one of American Airline’s iron maidens for most of that day and part of the next and missed the live show. So I took in the rebroadcast today. McVicar’s staging is a bit below what you might find in a provincial Italian opera house. There are two sets that were moved up and down by the met’s stage elevators. One has a few cardboard trees, the the other looks like a hut that Genghis Khan might have been born in, except that it’s too big. The costumes looked like schmattas from a Long Island garage sale. Perhaps that’s why the stage was so dimly lit. There was also some strange candle business inside Norma’s hut. They were lit, extinguished, and then lit again for no purpose I could discern. But one doesn’t go to Norma to look at its sets and costumes, it’s the singing that counts.
Verdi’s letter about Bellini written just a few years before his death neatly defines the Sicilian composer: Bellini is poor, it is true, in harmony and instrumentation; but rich in feeling and in an individual melancholy of his own! Even in the least well-known of his operas, in La straniera, in Il pirata, there are long, long, long melodies such as no-one before him had produced. And what truth and power of declamation, as for example in the duet between Pollione and Norma! And what elation of thought in the first phrase of the introduction [to the duet]…..no-one ever has created another more beautiful and heavenly.
The title role requires a great soprano who can master Bellini’s exquisitely long melodies and who can forcefully declaim the dramatic singing that is also integral to the role. The ideal Norma, in my opinion, would be a combination of Zinka Milanov and Maria Callas, both of whom sang this part at the Met. Sondra Radvanovsky is the best exemplar of Bellini’s wayward Druid priestess now active. Norma is an almost perfect textbook case of borderline personality disorder. “The most distinguishing symptoms of BPD are marked sensitivity to rejection or criticism, and intense fear of possible abandonment.” That’s her to a T+. Consider that Norma is ready to kill her two children because her lover had abandoned her. Radvanovsky played her as if she had memorized the DSM-5. Her vocal portrayal was vivid and full of both subtle and intense emissions. I would have liked a little more velvet in her voice, but there’s no denying that she has mastered this most demanding of roles.
The part of the young priestess, Adalgisa, is almost as difficult as Norma’s. But while Radvanovsky has sung Norma many times, this was Joyce DiDonato’s first go at the young priestess, a role that’s heavier than her usual fare of bel canto roles – and it showed. She was shrill at times and had some intonation problems. But she’s a fine artist and generally acquitted herself with distinction, especially in the second act. This improvement may have been the consequence of her being warmed up and/or the music, which is much better in the second act that that of the first – ‘Casta Diva’ notwithstanding.
Joseph Calleja was the Roman cad, Pollione. The part is best served by a spinto tenor which Calleja is not. It’s also a rather unrewarding role; the best music goes to the women. Calleja gave a rather bland reading of the part. He muffed the high note at the end of the first act cabaletta ‘Me protegge, me difende’. He also has some intonation problems in the first act. The annoying vibrato that had characterized his earlier singing is now almost completely gone, but his voice now is not as bright as it was.
Oroveso, Norma’s father and Druid chieftain was competently sung by the British bass Matthew Rose. The comprimario roles of Clotilde and Flavio were very well sung by Michelle Bradley and Adam Diegel, respectively. Gary Halvorson’s video direction was unobtrusive.
Carlo Rizzi, the conductor not the character in The Godfather, conducted the Met’s orchestra with sensitivity and emotion. But of course, the essential interest in Norma, as well as all of Bellini’s operas, is in the voice. The audience received this performance with great enthusiasm. It was a very good rendition of this great opera mostly because of Radvanovsky’s nuanced and near definitive realization of the title role.
Metropolitan Opera House
October 7, 2017 Matinee
Set Designer…………Robert Jones
Costume Designer……..Moritz Junge
Lighting Designerr……Paule Constable
Movement Directo……..Leah Constabler
TV Director………….Gary Halvorson