Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Hasmik Papian (Norma) and Franco Farina (Pollione) [Photo: Beatriz Schiller]
19 Nov 2007

Norma returns to the Met

The bel canto era, insofar as the contemporary public considers it at all, is usually thought of as the golden age of vocal beauty for its own sake.

Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
Metropolitan Opera, 12 and 16 November 2007
Hasmik Papian (Norma), Dolora Zajick (Adalgisa), Franco Farina (Pollione), Vitalij Kowaljow (Oroveso). Conducted by Maurizio Benini. Production by John Copley

Above: Hasmik Papian (Norma) and Franco Farina (Pollione)

All photos by Beatriz Schiller courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

 

It was certainly an era when the artist’s use of the voice to create character and drama were of the highest value, but the operas that survive (very few half a century ago, quite a few now), though the melodies are ravishing, call for singers who can bring them to life emotionally — they are never just vocal exercises for songbirds.

In the midst of that era, in 1831, Bellini’s Norma was created — by Giuditta Pasta, one of the most renowned singing actresses of her time, who had created Donizetti’s raging Anna Bolena and Bellini’s pathetic Sonnambula in the two years before Norma. And Norma is a curiosity in its era (more apparently now than at the time, when classical tragedies were often being turned into operas), calling as it does on the outsize character and emotional spectrum of a classical heroine: a Medea not just angry but deeply in love, a Phaedra who must also be a hypocritical politician and an edgy friend, a Clytemnestra wracked by jealousy and maternal misgiving.

Sopranos used to have a hearty respect for Norma — they didn’t take it on unless they were sure. Canny divas like Flagstad, Tebaldi and Price turned it down when management offered. Fewer ladies sang the role in eighty years at the Old Met than have attempted it in a mere forty at the New Met — the reason being that Callas made it sound supremely worth trying (it was her favorite role), while Sutherland and Caballe made it sound easy to sing; so that all kinds of singers took it on who had no business doing so. It’s a killer, demanding not only effortless floating tones and stunning coloratura on her first appearance (plus the ability to blend with the other soprano’s coloratura later on), but the dramatic capacity to hold an audience through the solo scene of attempted infanticide, the power to lead the war chorus, the concentrated fury of the duet with Pollione, and the authority to carry the superb finale.

The Met revives it nowadays, one gets the feeling, because audiences know the many Callas recordings (or Sutherland’s, or Caballe’s spectacular video from Orange), not because they have a real exemplar of the role to sing it. And without a Norma, you have pretty tunes but you haven’t really got a Norma.

The current revival began with Hasmik Papian in the role and is slated to continue with Maria Guleghina. After her Lady Macbeth — exciting and loud and flamboyantly acted, but with the ornaments fudged or flubbed — I have my doubts that Guleghina can handle this. Still, she will certainly play it; it will be a necessary event for all opera lovers sorry they weren’t in Lakehurst the night the Hindenburg landed. The casting of Papian, who has sung Norma to some acclaim in Washington and Toronto and whose Met Aida was impressive, spinning controlled pianissimi better than any Met Aida has in twenty years, gave one hope for her Norma, in spite of deficiencies those performances revealed in her dramatic imagination.

Such deficiencies necessarily undermine any well-sung Norma, but if the director is aware of them, appreciates a singer’s talents and weaknesses, they need not kill it. Papian is a handsome woman with a good figure; she can move on stage; and her tendency to fall back on the sort of antique dramatic gestures one sees in nineteenth-century engravings (Giuditta Pasta would recognize all of them, probably invented some of them) is not necessarily wrong for this role. Sutherland had little stage instinct, heaven knows, but she was a distinct diva presence in the part: no one wanted to tangle with this woman, and the vocalism was sublime enough to pull it off. Papian needs someone to walk her through the role, someone who really gets both Papian and Norma — she gives sympathetic performances on well-directed DVDs — but left to her own devices, she does not know how to join these attitudes into a woman torn by the requirements of priestess, lover, mother, friend, patriot, heroine: Papian only portrays a singer in search of a good spot on the stage.

Her vocalism, at least on the first two nights, did not justify her choice for this role either. Bereft of brilliant high notes, she took the lower choices — which are valid if one makes something of them — and she made pleasing use of grace notes in the “Vieni a me ritorna,” without, however, ornamenting the repeat. (What’s the point of repeating a cabaletta if you don’t vary it, make it individual?) She grew steadily more in command as the evening progressed, but she showed no sign of becoming Norma, the person Bellini invented, until the final furious duet with Pollione when gleaming metal furled from her throat, displaying a high register and a command that had no precedent all evening. Norma is not an opera for a diva who takes an act and a half to warm up to it, and if Papian ever truly was one, that time seems to have passed. (The only soprano of this generation whose Norma — she has never sung it — would arouse my real interest based on her evident abilities would be Krassimira Stoyanova: a fine actress and, based on her Anna Bolena, one able to sing brilliant coloratura expressing genuine rage.)

The Adalgisa of the evening was Dolora Zajick, who would make an interesting Norma. She, too, would sing it low, but she would sing it with the style and personality the part calls for — she would eat her Adalgisa alive, which no Norma would ever manage with Zajick’s Adalgisa. Well known and well loved for her powerhouse mezzo, a fiery Amneris who sadly has not been able to persuade the Met to trust her with such operas as Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans (which she has sung in many venues, always triumphantly) or Donizetti’s La Favorite (which she could easily bring off, with the right tenor), Zajick scales her big voice down for the demands of bel canto style. Indeed, her grasp of that style, of the evenness and delicacy required, were lessons Papian could study with profit. (Zajick had similarly shown up a caterwauling Jane Eaglen when the production was new.)

Scene_with_Papian_as_Norma_.pngScene with Hasmik Papian as Norma

Pollione was Franco Farina, a handsome burly figure but an uneven singer. In fact, he gave more pleasure in this role than he has in others — either Bellini suits him or he’s growing up. There were honeyed phrases in his first aria, and when a line lay too high for him (this varied from night to night, apparently as he gauged his chances of reaching a C), he interpolated an attractive variation on Bellini’s melody instead — a practice the bel canto era would certainly have regarded with approval. He matched Papian’s passion in their final duet and looked genuinely thunderstruck when she proclaimed her guilt to her people. If the money notes come more easily and he continues to focus on flowing line, he could be a real asset in roles like Radames and Riccardo; he has power, and he doesn’t bark.

Vitalij Kowaljow made gorgeous sounds in the thankless part of Oroveso; one day, when he is the house’s reigning King Philip, we will remember his long apprenticeship. The tension I always feel at any performance of Norma — am I going to want to murder the children before she gets around to it? — kept me on pins till the final scene, when the already annoying tots appeared quite gratuitously. Dammi il ferro. (I don’t advise them to stick around when Guleghina arrives.)

Maurizio Benini led a swift-paced, bang-up account of the score. There were places that might have been more sensitive to emotional movement, and balances in the orchestra that favored the oom-pah-pah bass line over melodic flavor, but there was little chance of anyone going to sleep. John Conklin’s sets, with their profusion of coffee tables and an opening scene set in what appeared to be a glossy-floored Druidic art gallery displaying a show of overfed Giacomettis, generally managed to stay out of everyone’s way. Now if only a Pasta or Callas or Ponselle had cared to grab the center stage.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):