DiDonato provides the sparks in Met’s grim, dramatically flat “Norma”

Tue Sep 26, 2017 at 11:02 am
Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato in Bellini's "Norma" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato in Bellini’s “Norma” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

By rights, opening night at the Metropolitan Opera should be one of the most thrilling evenings of the entire season–opera addicts have endured what seems like an eternal summer, looking forward to September, when we can get our fix again.

Few things are so deflating as a dull opener. Norma, Bellini’s passionate tragedy about a Celtic priestess who forsakes her vows for the love of a Roman general, is as worthy a candidate as any to lead off a season, but there was little in the way of first-night electricity at Monday’s premiere.

The Met’s new production is by David McVicar, and it indulges some of the director’s most unfortunate habits: gloomy, foggy, and monochromatic, it bears all the hallmarks of a McVicar staging, from the odd mugging of the chorus to the pencil-post trees that meander slowly across the stage. There’s never any question as to where the action is taking place–a grove, a cavernous yurt, another grove–but neither is there anything especially interesting to to see: it’s ancient Gaul, only darker. McVicar’s stark dramatic sense has given the Met some striking productions over the years, yet his favorite trick of forcing the audience to stare through the darkness becomes tedious when there’s nothing behind the shroud.

After her sensational work in the title role four years ago, it seems only natural for Radvanovsky to lead a high-profile new production at the Met. But four years can be a long time in the development of an operatic voice, and Radvanovsky’s turn in the role this time around lacked both the vocal security and the dramatic inspiration of her previous incarnation.

That’s a problem for an opera like Norma. It’s telling that the piece entered the Met’s repertoire as early as 1890 but has since appeared only sporadically, performed just 157 times in the long history of the company. Bellini’s Druidic drama requires a rock-solid star to anchor it, and nothing else will do.

It took Radvanovsky a while to find her footing on Monday, which is tough when the opera’s signature aria comes at the character’s first entrance: her “Casta diva” showed nice lyrical subtleties in her middle voice, but the attempts to carry off the high sotto voce at the top of the line were clouded over with roughness. In the cabaletta, her coloratura–never exactly pinpoint to begin with–felt especially weary. She settled in by the second act, especially as she put extra fire into her duets, showing off the blazing clarity of her top notes and finally nailing a couple of those high pianissimos. Even so, Radvanovsky largely made safe dramatic choices, falling into practiced gesture rather than letting herself be transported by the role.

Her partner for many of those duets was Joyce DiDonato, whose performance as the romantic rival Adalgisa provided yet more evidence–as if we needed any–of her status as a supreme bel canto stylist. Her technique as firm as bedrock, she built a gripping character on her fiery vocal interpretation. Her confession to Norma in the Act I duet “Sola, furtiva al tempio” showed palpable sorrow, and a special urgency, as she sang every word as though it were the most important in the libretto.

As tenor leads go, the Roman governor Pollione isn’t an especially rewarding role, and McVicar’s conception of him as a straightforwardly loutish brute made him particularly bland. The golden voice of Joseph Calleja at least made the vocal part a joy to listen to–he sent free, radiant tone into the house all night without a hint of effort.

Two strong supporting performances rounded out the cast: Matthew Rose was a noble Oroveso, bringing a rough-grained bass to the role and showing keen lyrical instincts in his brief Act II aria, “Ah! Del Tebro.” Michelle Bradley was especially impressive as Clotilde, Norma’s nurse, offering a firm, dark, full-bodied soprano. Adam Diegel was a dutiful if slightly gruff Flavio, and the chorus was luminous, as ever.

Carlo Rizzi, alas, did little to help the evening along, overseeing a reading from the pit that was as grim as the staging. He was off to a promising start, with an energetic, lustrous account of the opening sinfonia, but thereafter his sluggish tempos made the evening drag. The performance clocked in at just over three hours, but felt more like three and half.

Norma runs through December 16 at the Metropolitan Opera. Marina Rebeka sings the title role on October 16 and 20, and Vazgen Gazaryan appears as Oroveso on October 20. A second cast, starring Angela Meade and Jamie Barton, and conducted by Joseph Colaneri, opens on December 1. metopera.org


3 Responses to “DiDonato provides the sparks in Met’s grim, dramatically flat “Norma””

  1. Posted Sep 29, 2017 at 7:02 pm by heller

    How disappointing. She was so magnificent in Devereux. I bought her Norma at Met opera shop (most expensive) and disliked it also; she is not fiery enough.

  2. Posted Oct 04, 2017 at 7:13 pm by Dave

    I saw Carlo Rizzi conduct Norma in 2001 and it was terrible. At the end of that performance a man said in a rather loud voice “it”s a like baseball, you win some and you lose some.” It hasn’t changed. Bellini’s music can be rhythmically hypnotic. Not with Rizzi. On Oct 3 the singers were fine, with first night jitters out of the way. However, the opera was totally flat.

  3. Posted Oct 05, 2017 at 12:31 pm by Dave

    To continue my post above, I was sitting quite close to the stage and since it was a televised rehearsal for Saturday, the lighting was probably better than what the director had intended. The singers had facial expressions that expressed their feelings. They sang what seemed to be note perfect but I am not in a position to critically comment about that.

    However, Bellini insisted that all feelings should be expressed through the singing. It is here where they were entirely lacking. pace Didonato fans. The conductor was not entirely responsible for one of those note perfect dead evenings which have become so common since the onset of the reign of Gelb. I used to look forward to perhaps being lucky and having a thrilling night at the Met. Now for the first year I no longer feel that way.

    SF, LA, Chicago sound much better on the radio.Sometimes a first night was not good,but have become thrilling in later performances. Opening night is often not the best time to review. them. The last performance of Salome was amazing although opening night was not. Radvanovsky’s last performance of Roberto Devereux was really great; opening night it wasn’t. Norma might be much better later in the season when Rizzi is gone. As Bellini said, opera should make you tremble, weep and die. When great it’s a visceral experience. Some reviewers only seem to see it as a vocal circus.

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