Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

The Maryland Opera Studio Defies Genre with Fascinating Double-Bill

This past weekend, the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) presented a double-billed performance of two of Kurt Weill’s less familiar staged works: Zaubernacht (1922) and Mahagonny-Songspiel (1927).

Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall: Focus on Sir Harrison Birtwistle

The Nash Ensemble’s annual contemporary music showcase focused on the work of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a composer with whom the group has enjoyed a long and close association. Three of the six works by Birtwistle performed here were commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, as was Elliott Carter’s Mosaic which, alongside Oliver Knussen’s Study for ‘Metamorphosis’ for solo bassoon, completed a programme was intimate and intricate, somehow both elusive in spirit and richly communicative.

McVicar's Faust returns to the ROH

To lose one Marguerite may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. But, with the ROH Gounod’s Faust seemingly heading for ruin, salvation came in the form of an eleventh-hour arrival of a redeeming ‘angel’.

A superb Semele from the English Concert at the Barbican Hall

It’s good to aim high … but be careful what you wish for. Clichéd idioms perhaps, but also wise words which Semele would have been wise to heed.

A performance of Vivaldi's La Senna festeggiante by Arcangelo

In 1726 on 25 August, Jacques-Vincent Languet, Comte de Gergy, the new French ambassador to the Venetian Republic held a celebration for the name day of King Louis XV of France. There was a new piece of music performed in the loggia at the foot of Languet's garden with an audience of diplomats and, watching from gondolas, Venetian nobles.

Matthew Rose and Tom Poster at Wigmore Hall

An interesting and thoughtfully-composed programme this, presented at Wigmore Hall by bass Matthew Rose and pianist Tom Poster, and one in which music for solo piano ensured that the diverse programme cohered.

Ekaterina Semenchuk sings Glinka and Tchaikovsky

To the Wigmore Hall for an evening of magnificently old-school vocal performance from Ekaterina Semenchuk. It was very much her evening, rather than that of her pianist, Semyon Skigin, though he had his moments, especially earlier on.

Hubert Parry's Judith at the Royal Festival Hall

Caravaggio’s depiction (1598-99) of the climactic moment when the young, beautiful, physically weak Judith seizes the head of Holofernes by the enemy general’s hair and, flinching with distaste, cleaves the neck of the occupying Assyrian with his own sword, evokes Holofernes’ terror with visceral precision - eyes and screaming mouth are wide open - and is shockingly theatrical, the starkly lit figures embraced by blackness.

La Pietà in Rome

Say "La Pietà" and you think immediately of Michelangelo’s Rome Pietà. Just now Roman Oscar-winning film composer Nicola Piovani has asked us to contemplate two additional Pietà’s in Rome, a mother whose son is dead by overdose, and a mother whose son starved to death.

Orfeo ed Euridice in Rome

No wrecked motorcycle (director Harry Kupfer’s 1987 Berlin Orfeo), no wrecked Citroen and black hearse (David Alagna’s 2008 Montpellier Orfée [yes! tenorissimo Roberto Alagna was the Orfée]), no famed ballet company (the Joffrey Ballet) starring in L.A. Opera’s 2018 Orpheus and Eurydice).

Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel - a world premiere at English National Opera

Jack the Ripper is as luridly fascinating today as he was over a century ago, so it was no doubt sensationalist of the marketing department of English National Opera to put the Victorian serial killer’s name first and the true subject of Iain Bell’s new opera - his victims, the women of Whitechapel - as something of an after-thought. Font size matters, especially if it’s to sell tickets.

Tosca at the Met


The 1917 Met Tosca production hung around for 50 years, bested by the 1925 San Francisco Opera production that lived to the ripe old age of 92.  The current Met production is just 2 years old but has the feel of something that can live forever.

Drama Queens and Divas at the ROH: Handel's Berenice

A war ‘between love and politics’: so librettist Antonio Salvi summarised the conflict at the heart of Handel’s 1737 opera, Berenice. Well, we’ve had a surfeit of warring politics of late, but there’s been little love lost between opposing factions, and the laughs that director Adele Thomas and her team supply in this satirical and spicy production at the ROH’s stunningly re-designed Linbury Theatre have been in severely short supply.

Mozart’s Mass in C minor at the Royal Festival Hall

A strange concert, this, in that, although chorally conceived, it proved strongest in the performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto: not so much a comment on the choral singing as on the conducting of Dan Ludford-Thomas.

Samson et Dalila at the Met


It was the final performance of the premiere season of Darko Tresnjak’s production of Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. Four tenors later. 

The Enchantresse and Dido and Aeneas
in Lyon

Dido and Aeneas, Il ritorno d’Ulisse and Tchaikowsky’s L’Enchantresse, the three operas of the Opéra de Lyon’s annual late March festival all tease destiny. But far more striking than the thematic relationship that motivates this 2019 festival is the derivation of these three productions from the world of hyper-refined theater, far flung hyper-refined theater.

The devil shares the good tunes: Chelsea Opera Group's Mefistofele

Every man ‘who burns with a thirst for knowledge and life and with curiosity about the nature of good and evil is Faust ... [everyone] who aspires to the Unknown, to the Ideal, is Faust’.

La forza del destino at Covent Garden

Prima la music, poi la parole? It’s the perennial operatic conundrum which has exercised composers from Monteverdi, to Salieri, to Strauss. But, on this occasion we were reminded that sometimes the answer is a simple one: Non, prima le voci!

Barbara Hannigan sings Berg and Gershwin at the Barbican Hall

I first heard Barbara Hannigan in 2008.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Angela Meade, soprano, performs the roll of Norma in Bellini's Norma a Bel Canto at Caramoor performance in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor in Katonah New York on July 10, 2010..(photo by Gabe Palacio)
21 Jul 2010

Angela Meade's Norma at Caramoor

Bellini’s Norma was composed in 1831 and, in the era of such singing actresses as Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Giuseppina Strepponi, Giulia Grisi and Thérèse Tietjens (famous Normas all), soon came to be known as the bel canto vehicle par excellence, the summit of vocal achievement.

Norma, Sasha Cooke at Caramoor

Norma: Angela Meade; Adalgisa: Keri Alkema; Pollione: Emmanuel di Villarosa; Oroveso: Daniel Mobbs. Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Will Crutchfield. Caramoor International Music Festival. Performance of July 16. Chamber Music at Caramoor, featuring Sasha Cooke, performance of July 18.

Above: Angela Meade performing the role of Norma

All photos by Gabe Palacio

 

Though none of these ladies lived long enough to record her art, Andrew Porter, in a pre-performance talk at Caramoor, quoted several critics of the era to show that each Norma was controversial—what delighted one writer was insufficient for another.

Lilli Lehmann, the Met’s first Norma (singing it in German), made the famous comment that Norma took more out of her than all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—a quote misconstrued by many an impresario to imply that any natural Brünnhilde was also a Norma. (The Met tried to persuade Kirsten Flagstad to take it over from Ponselle, but she had more sense than they did.) More to the point, perhaps, is that the first Norma, Pasta, was also Bellini’s first Sonnambula, a far gentler, more sentimental sort of role—Norma must rage, but she also feels the pangs of rejected love, of deep maternal love and of women’s friendship. Wagner admired Bellini extravagantly and loved Norma—he had coached Lehmann’s mother in the role for a benefit performance he conducted. From Bellini, in part, Wagner learned the way a melody could be extended to express lingering emotional truths, one emotion drifting into others. Too, there is more than a touch of Greek tragedy to Norma, with its fierceness of feeling beneath simplicity of action, and Wagner took much of his method of dramatic construction from Greek sources.

20100710Caramoor_3538.gifAngela Meade (Norma) and Keri Alkema (Adalgisa)

What Lehmann probably meant by her bon mot is that the vocal line in Wagner’s Ring is part of many concurrent lines of sound, that the voice fades out of and into the overall texture, and the orchestra will carry the score if the voice fades. In Bellini, the singer has no place to hide—the orchestration is delicate (a lot of pizzicato) and subservient to the singer, who must create the statements, tensions and confrontations of the role. If you run out of breath in Bellini, everyone in the house will know it. For this among other reasons, perfect Normas are rare to unheard-of. In a saner age, singers used to respect its complexities and seldom attempted it without justification. In the entire twentieth century, by general consensus, there were only two nearly perfect Normas, at least outside Italy: Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas. After Callas’s era, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé both sang vocally sumptuous Normas that left something to be desired in characterization. Unfortunately, they made the opera sound so easy to sing, in their very different personal styles, that many ambitious sopranos after them decided to tackle it, only to crash and burn. I haven’t heard a competent Norma since Sutherland and Caballé laid down their verbena wreaths—or I hadn’t until last Friday.

Norma is a seeress who has betrayed her gods and her country out of love for an enemy seducer. Sworn to virginity, she has borne her lover two children and repressed calls for a national uprising. When she learns he loves another priestess, her jealous rage almost inspires her to murder her children à la Medea or to command a nationwide massacre. Failing that, she could have her rival burned in front of her lover’s eyes—she considers this—or she can face the truth and her own corruption. Who is the traitor? “Son io,” she sings—unaccompanied, a moment of stark drama—“’Tis I”—adding, “Prepare the fire.” Surely Wagner was inspired by the gorgeous finale, the melody rising, falling, evolving, sweeping us along, the lovers marching through an angry throng to fiery doom, and that it was not in the back of his mind as he completed Götterdämmerung.


Angela Meade is 32. Her voice is large, beautiful and carefully trained. Her theatrical temperament is on the cautious side but her instincts are good and she has applied herself to the dramatic side of things. She made her stage debut at the Met two years ago in Verdi’s Ernani, replacing an ailing Sondra Radvanovsky, and though a bit uncertain on stage and understandably wary in early scenes, she had the goods for a thrilling final act. Last year, at Caramoor, Will Crutchfield persuaded her to undertake the title role in Rossini’s Semiramide, one of the mightier benchmarks for a dramatic coloratura. Again she made a slow start and her acting was stiff, but the entire second act (an endurance contest for all four leads) was edge-of-the-seat stuff. This year, therefore, Maestro Crutchfield resolved to showcase her in two performances of Norma. Those, we sighed, whom the Gods would destroy, they first tempt to appear as Norma.

20100710Caramoor_8525.gifAngela Meade (Norma), Keri Alkema (Adalgisa) and Emmanuel di Villarosa (Pollione) with Will Crutchfield (conducting)

From the first performance came joyous reports; I attended the second and happily confirm them: Meade is a far more than respectable Norma. For a first attempt, this was exceptional bel canto singing and operatic acting.

Meade’s voice possesses some of Sutherland’s metallic power in her upper range, including a clarion high D she brought forth to end the great Act I trio, and she shares Sutherland’s cleanness of attack if not her unwavering breath control. Some of her highest notes and ornaments, however, are not quite so easy or even, especially in soft singing, where she sometimes resorted to head voice. She ornaments with taste and the head-voice notes are pretty, but this altered register implies she is ducking away from full-force singing. Her chest voice, in contrast, is superbly produced and of great beauty and evenness, reminding me of Tebaldi, who also sang dramatic coloratura roles early in her career. This argues that bel canto roles will not be Meade’s meat forever, but that when the highest notes fade, she could have an important career in the lirico-spinto repertory of Verdi and Puccini that currently lacks an ideal interpreter. Perhaps best of all, Meade knows how to present her dramatic ideas forcefully, jabbing with a sudden attack (as Norma, so often angry, must do) or turning reflective with a creamy legato.

In looks, though on the plump side, Meade moves well and holds herself with dignity. She evinces a dramatic as well as a musical intelligence, and these combined with the sheer loveliness of her singing to bring the house to its feet at Caramoor. We were all eager to hear her again in any number of roles. To achieve such an impression with Norma, the most unconquerable of heroines, is itself a major achievement.

Her Adalgisa, Keri Alkema, sang with a dark, sensuous contrast to Meade’s brighter sound. During their duets, the two ladies mingled their voices to sublime effect, blending colors and ornaments deliciously.

The evening’s Pollione, Emmanuel di Villarosa, announced he was performing with a cold and at first sounded that way, intonation faulty, high phrases brought down an octave to avoid cracking. He nonetheless made a sturdy, ardent figure and had warmed up by the great trio to carry his full dramatic weight. His change of heart in the final scene (a weakness of the libretto) seemed perfectly credible. Daniel Mobbs sang Norma’s father, Oroveso, impressively, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s muddled through punishing humidity that hampered taut string playing.

For many of us, it was as genuine a Norma as we could have hoped for after so many mediocre imitations. I almost envied the younger generation who were hearing this superb score for the first time and hearing it done so well.

Sadly, traffic jams getting out of New York on a Friday evening kept me from attending the pre-opera concert of some of Wagner’s bel canto works, excerpts from Das Liebesverbot (his “Bellini” opera) and other items, sung by younger members of the Crutchfield program, but I got back to Caramoor on Sunday afternoon for a concert of Chopin and Schumann chamber music (this year marks the bicentennial of both gentlemen) with, set among the cellos like a jewel of great price, Sasha Cooke performing Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben.

As a rule, I am reluctant to hear yet another soprano take on this too-familiar song cycle, Schumann’s idealization of the adoration of his new bride, Clara—a loving but far more sophisticated and complex woman than is the narrator of these poems. (In this the era of gay marriage, which male singer will be the first to tackle it? Actually, Matthias Goerne has already done so.) But Sasha Cooke is more than capable of making clichés new. Her voice is an ample, generous mezzo of great size and appeal, clear and precise at “chamber” level, then effortlessly soaring to fill Caramoor’s enormous tent at the more delirious moments of the score. Her diction is exceptional, her dramatic gifts considerable—she tells the story and seems to inhabit the naïve narrator. In the music of Frauenliebe, a very simple woman expresses with her voice an emotional commitment deeper than words, and Cooke seemed to be living each layer of meaning, the notes swelling as her heart sought words.

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):