Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Norma at the Lyric

The summer solstice is that discordant jolt when just as the warmth arrives daylight begins to shorten.  For opera buffs looking ahead to the next season it’s also a time to take one last look in the rear view mirror.  Patrons of the Lyric Opera are in the middle of a Bellini double-header treat – last season’s Norma, a highlight, and next season’s I Puritani.  Can’t gainsay that.

Composer Vincenzo Bellini is the pride of Sicily.  After his all-too-short life of 33 years, he was buried in the cathedral of his home town Catania, in the shadow of Mt. Aetna looking out on the Ionian Sea.  I regrettably missed visiting that church during my one time on the great island – I only came as close as the nearby airport.  Bellini wrote some wonderful melodies, and one can only wonder what more he would have written had he not died so young.

Norma is the story of a druid high-priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul who faces a reckoning after her longstanding illicit, secret lover, the Roman military leader and enemy of her people with whom she has two young children, decides to decamp for Rome with a younger priestess, his new infatuation.  She had betrayed her religion and her people for him, and faces the consequences, moral and otherwise.  Eventually the Roman sees the error of his ways, but, since this is Italian tragic opera, after all, too late to save either of them.   

The music is spectacular, with the long-flowing melodies for which Bellini is famous.  The singing for the role of Norma, said to be very challenging, I find smooth and full of harmony with little of the unappealing (at least to me) vocal calisthenics common in opera at the time.  Maria Callas gets much credit for reviving so-called bel canto opera in the 1950s, and in fact she made her American debut singing Norma in Chicago at the Lyric in its inaugural 1954 season.  In the program guide, Lyric “dramaturg” Roger Pines quotes the late superstar soprano Joan Sutherland calling Norma “the pinnacle role,” and he writes that “there is no greater music for a soprano in the entire operatic repertoire.”

This time around Norma was performed and sung beautifully by Chicago native soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who appeared recently at the Met in the three Donizetti “queen” operas.  At the Lyric she was joined by, among others, Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa, her conflicted rival in love, and by Russell Thomas as the unfaithful Roman proconsul Pollione.  Radvanovsky’s repertory includes Verdi’s I vespri siciliani; Lyric patrons can only hope.

As for the production, the sets and direction frequently let the audience down, unfortunately a not uncommon problem in opera these days.  Part of opera is visual, so a good set that can help convey the story and stimulate the imagination greatly enhances the experience, while one that is bland, or anachronistic, or confuses the narrative detracts.  The entire Norma set was a single scene, visually interesting in the abstract, but not one representative of Roman Gaul.  I doubt there would be a structure with 60 foot high thick, decorative wooden columns supporting a large indoor space in rural, sylvan Gaul.  And the entire opera was staged in this drab-gray "space," despite some of the scenes taking place in the forest or in a hidden hut deep in the woods.  Well, in the program guide the director says he was visually inspired by … wait for it … Game of Thrones, so that explains that.  That’s relevance, the holy grail of many a hip post-modern director.  But this was a multi-partner co-production, so there’s lot of responsibility spread around.  I appreciate and value imagination, but within the confines of the narrative. 

Some years ago when back in Chicago, Radvanovsky would stop by for delightful chats about opera with the incomparable Milt Rosenberg on his storied late-evening radio show Extension 720; I caught at least one of those programs, and more if memory serves.  I miss that show very much, but that’s another story. 

R Balsamo

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