Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Il Trovatore at Dutch National Opera

Four lonely people, bound by love and fate, with inexpressible feelings that boil over in the pressure cooker of war. Àlex Ollé’s conception of Il Trovatore for Dutch National Opera hits the bull’s eye.

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for English National Opera, but the ready laughter from the auditorium and the fresh musical and dramatic responses from the stage suggest that it will continue to amuse audiences and serve the house well for some time to come.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Sweeney Todd at the San Francisco Opera

Did the iconic “off-beat” and “serious” American musical hold the stage of the War Memorial Opera House? The excited audience (standees three deep) thought so and roared their appreciation.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance

Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging

Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.

Regimented Daughter in Santa Fe

At Santa Fe Opera, Donizetti’s effervescent The Daughter of the Regiment can’t quite decide what it wants to be when it grows up.



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):