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Jessye Norman
08 Jun 2010

Festive Concert with Jessye Norman

It was more the ruins than the remnants of a once-great voice that Jessye Norman brought to Israel’s new, 6500-seat outdoor opera theater at the foot of historic Masada Mountain.

Festive Concert with Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman, soprano. Raana Symphonette Orchestra. Conductor: Rachael Worby.

Above: Jessye Norman


The appearance of an artist whose best years lie in the past can be a moving experience in its recall of extraordinary greatness. Hearing Norman, once one of the most impressive voices of her day, at this point in her career was, however, disquieting — and disheartening.

The concert was a major event in launching the program that makes Israel Opera a major player among the world’s summer opera festivals. Yet the established format for such gala events is in itself of questionable artistic merit: one sits patiently through bits and pieces of opera — the Marchfrom Aida and a bit of orchestral Puccini — waiting to hear a modest handful of hits sung by the artist of the evening.

The music that made Norman famous — Strauss, Mahler, Wagner — is clearly no longer within her reach and thus was totally absent from the Masada program. There she turned rather to Saint-Saens and Puccini and — on the second half of an almost three-hour concert — Gershwin and Duke Ellington. For certain qualities Norman, now 65, can still be praised: pitch is no problem and — with an excess of hand gestures — she still throws herself into the music.

The sad truth, however, is that she has lost absolute control of her voice; there is no longer flexibility, and only rarely was there at Masada a hint of the beauty and richness that once made her special. To counter her diminished powers Norman chose as her partner onstage young American Rachel Worby, now at home with the Pasadena Pops, who worked in Israel with the Raanana Symphonette, an ensemble founded in 1991 largely by musicians from the then still Soviet Union.

Worby qualified at Masada as an accommodating accompanist — not as an independent conductor. She took her cues from Norman and did what she could to help the singer create an impression of great artistry. Alas, it did not work.

The new theater, so successful for the lavish production of Verdi’s Nabucco on the previous evening, was much too large for the Norman concert. The sound so superb in Verdi was anemic; the show was too small for the majesty of surroundings that reached to the very edge of the Dead Sea.

Also physically diminished, Norman failed to reach her audience emotionally in the first half of the program; there was little enthusiasm in the response to Italian hits. Things went somewhat better with Gershwin and Ellington — but not much better. Although Norman on occasion sang this music earlier, it was never at the center of her repertory, and despite the use of a husky chest voice, one could not overcome the impression that here she was poaching.

The irony of It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing was that Norman could not make it swing at all. “You can hear Ella Fitzgerald rotating in her grave,” someone commented in leaving the performance that ended with several encores, including an uncomfortably graceless Amazing Grace. One wonders about Norman’s health. Getting on and off stage was an obvious effort; several times she remained on stage in a darkened chair while the orchestra was in the spotlight and on several occasions she remained seated while singing.

The big critical question, however, concerns the “why” of this event. Why did Israel Opera invite Jessye Norman for a concert that not only heralded a new festival, but also celebrated the company’s 25th anniversary? The concert underscored a turning point in the history of an ambitious and admirable company. The concert was thus designed to give Israel Opera at Masada an instant cachet: I’m Jessye Norman and I’m here to tell you how fantastic Masada is…

In this Norman failed Israel Opera; the concert was far from sold out, and many chose to listen to the second half at the bars outside the theater. And Norman? Why did she do this? How did she see — and hear- herself?

Once a queen, always a queen?

To a star who once had it all, recent years, devoted largely to good works, have been unkind. (Compare Norman’s artistry today with that of Frederica von Stade, also born in 1945.) She remains active, doing good works, but, as one saw at Masada, Jessye Norman is no longer a presence in the world of performing artists.

The Norman conquest, so to speak, is over.

Wes Blomster

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