Opening Night Norma: Business as Usual

Opening night Norma, photo @ Ken Howard

Last night was one of my personal firsts: attending an opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera: Bellini's Norma. I thought at the very least it'd be fun in a special occasion sort of way. Instead it was one of the most normal, average nights I've ever spent at the Met. It wasn't a bad performance so much as a terribly routine one.

The new production by David McVicar looked like something that was raided from old sets of Die Walkure. Norma's house looks a lot like Hunding's hut, and the centerpiece of the Druid command center was an enormous tree. I really thought Norma was going to pull a sword from the tree. The costumes by Moritz Junger were nondescript dark drapes for most everybody. It was a safe, inoffensive production for the most part, save some odd directorial choices. Why does Norma begin "Casta diva" by crawling on her hands and knees to the little treehouse platform, and why does she scurry under the tree to sing "Ah bello a mi ritorna"?

But the fault of last night's dull, unenthusiastic performance lies not with McVicar, as really, what CAN a director do with Norma? This is such a singer-centered opera. Very hard to make a regie-Norma. It was instead the flawed performances by ALL the principal singers that made this night not-so-memorable. No one's voice was working the way it needed to work to pull this opera off.

Let's start with the big one: Sondra Radvanovsky. Norma isn't a new role for her. She's sung it many times in many houses, including the Met. She was a replacement when Anna Netrebko decided "nyet" on Norma. The Russian superdiva's primo ottocento skills are suspect but she might have brought a measure of glamour to the evening.

Sondra's Druid Priestess, photo @ Ken Howard
I wanted to like Radvanovsky's Norma. She certainly works hard. But her Norma didn't work for me musically or artistically. Part of it I think is her voice -- it's large and powerful, but can be unwieldy. Notes often become thin and scratchy, the tone wavers and sounds harsh. Cabalettas are a struggle for her -- after a mostly lovely "Casta diva" she sang a bumpy, approximate "Ah bello a mi ritorna." But most of it is her musical choices. Simply put, she's not a very musical singer. It's amazing that after so many years singing Italian repertory, she still pronounces Italian phonetically, with all vowels distorted to an "eee" or "aww" sound. Like many non-Italian singers she also over rolls her r's. Listen to Pavarotti and Scotto. Did they ever roll their r's in such an exaggerated way? Another issue is her inability to sing a clean, unfussy vocal line. She sounds like she's spacing out the music in chunks so she can use two of her favorite special effects: the soft, floated high note, and the blasted, fortissimo high note. A Norma that can't sing Bellini's vocal lines in a clean, instrumental way is a non-starter, in my opinion. Her voice also started to give out during "In mia man." The cascades of sound that Radvanovsky usually supplies just wasn't there at the very moment it needed to be there. And "Son io" was oddly muffled and rushed, so the impact of the Big Reveal was totally lost.

La Divina in Norma
Her dramatic choices were also off. She just didn't exude the authority needed for the role. Look at pictures of Maria Callas in this role: no doubt who was Boss. Her interactions with her two children were off too -- at the beginning of Act 2, Norma contemplates killing them. The scene when done right is supposed to tear your heart out. But Sondra barely looked at them, and the childrens' interactions with Clotilde (an excellent Michelle Bradley) were warmer. Sondra also needs lessons on how to make some stage business more convincing: she held her dagger like a Halloween costume prop all night. No sense that this woman was teetering on the edge of murder.

DiDonato and Radvanovsky, photo @ Ken Howard
Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had the opposite problem. Her slender mezzo soprano was an odd fit for this role, which was originated on a soprano (Giulia Grisi, who would go on to sing Norma) and if sung by a mezzo needs one with a secure upper register. Alas, Joyce has never had a secure, free upper register and especially didn't have one last night. In the first act duet "O rimembranza" she tried to match Norma's high C, got nowhere close to the note, and hastily improvised a descending cadenza. She didn't even try in the second act duet "Mira o Norma." Her voice sounded like it had reached its ceiling all night. One wonders why there weren't some transpositions to accommodate Joyce's range. (Correction: I've been told by someone way more versed in music than myself that Joyce's solo at the start of the Act Two duet was transposed, but that was the only transposition.)

But Joyce does so much with such a limited vocal capacity. She's an intensely musical singer who communicates with the audience in a direct, sincere way. When she sang, you knew exactly what she was singing about, what the character felt, and for once, Adalgisa's drama became more compelling than Norma's. She shaped Bellini's vocal lines beautifully -- even when she was reaching for another high note that wasn't there, you could admire the way she made you "see the music." Her diction was clear and there was always a connection to the text. So when she sang those duets with Norma it was like one side (Sondra) was garbled and mushy vocalise, and the other side (Joyce) was a lieder recital.

Calleja as Pollione, photo @ Ken Howard
Joseph Calleja (Pollione) has, like Radvanovsky and DiDonato, a tight, constricted vibrato that is not always easy on the ears. His tone is warm and his stage manner earnest. Too earnest. The McVicar vision of Pollione is a jerk with wife-abuser-vibes. Calleja tried mightily but couldn't quite pull off that persona. Vocally he was fine. Matthew Rose (Oroveso) must have been having a bad night because he sounded shaky and wobbly all night and he usually is reliable.

As usual the Met's orchestra and chorus saved the day. For this production we were spared the overindulgent Marco Armiliato and/or Maurizio Benini. Carlo Rizzi led a sensitive, detailed account of the score, with the melancholy melodies taking center stage. The chorus was as always amazing.

At the end of the evening the principals got a polite if not overwhelming ovation. When the production team was brought out there were neither cheers nor boos, just silence as most people were already shuffling out of the auditorium. As I said, just business as usual at the Met. Not a very promising start to a season that seems designed to be very safe and dull.


  1. Thank you Ora. Are you going to see this?

  2. Ivy, have you seen any of the NYCB Swan Lakes?

    The silence on this front from New York is deafening, so those of us out here in the provinces have nothing to go by but twitter and instagram feeds of the principals.

    Is everyone waiting for the all debuts to be over with before weighing in? By that time the run will be over.

    I guess it doesn't matter in terms of butts in seats. People will go see Swan Lake no matter what. But inquiring minds do want to know.....


    1. I have seen one (Tess Reichlen) but will be seeing Sterling Hyltin on Friday and Tiler Peck on Sunday. Will report back when I see all of them.

  3. Got it.
    BTW why didn't the Met give Norma to Meade?
    I'm not a fan, but she can at least sing it.

    1. She is singing it in December, with Jamie Barton as Adalgisa.


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