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'Norma' in Baltimore

Ruth Ann Swenson (Adalgisa) and Hasmik Papian (Norma) in Norma (photo courtesy of Baltimore Opera)
Add to the list of opportunities to hear bel canto opera this month the fine production of Bellini's Norma at Baltimore Opera. Wednesday evening's performance confirmed what seemed evident just from looking at the cast list: the company outdid itself by assembling a fine group of singers, especially in the pairing of prima and seconda donna for Norma and Adalgisa. Under most circumstances, the devoted connoisseur of opera, especially one dedicated to bel canto opera, would be willing to travel to hear a performance of the rarely heard Norma, one of the legendary summits of the style. This production is worth the effort.

Starring in the title role is Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian, returning yet again to the part that has earned her critical acclaim here in Washington and around the world, including famously sweeping in to last year's production at the Met. Papian sang with remarkable fortitude, scaling her voice to the moment in a range from velvety pianissimo to searing forte. Not every run or trill was in place, but she has earned the reputation she has as one of the few sopranos today who can sing Norma well. True, her voice can tilt toward the acidic here and there, but that is well suited to the vengeful, mercurial disposition of the Druid priestess.

Soprano Hasmik Papian in Norma (photo courtesy of Baltimore Opera)
If anything, the Adalgisa of Ruth Ann Swenson was more astounding, the voice having blossomed in its lower range since her recent battle with cancer. It was still as golden and smooth, all around with much more bel in the bel canto than Papian. The duet of the two women in Act II merged the two voices seamlessly, making it the high point of this top-notch musical evening. Swenson may not be welcome at the Met anymore, but that theater's loss is our gain. The other major role, the punishing tenor of Pollione, was sung capably by Frank Porretta, who started off very roughly on Wednesday night but warmed up to a more secure place in his voice, an instrument that is more muscle than finesse. Chinese bass Hao Jiang Tian was a stentorian presence as Oroveso.

The libretto by Felice Romani borders on the patently absurd, involving the love entanglement in ancient Gaul of a Roman soldier (Pollione) with not one, but two Druid priestesses, who are both supposed to be vowed to chastity to the moon goddess. The production directed by Roberto Oswald was a somber affair, full of gloomy colors that made Norma's red veil in the final scene stand out for it warmth. The costumes by Anibal Lapiz were so drab and ugly that one was thankful for the often murky lighting by Benjamin Pearcy to make them less visible, like the shabby robes for the priests that looked recycled from the Hebrew chorus of Nabucco. When Norma made her famous entrance in Act I, one could be forgiven for wondering why that filthy washerwoman had entered instead.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Baltimore Opera's 'Norma' is of note (Baltimore Sun, November 20)

Anne Midgette, In Baltimore's 'Norma,' Swenson Is Second to None (Washington Post, November 21)
Romanian-born conductor Christian Badea's gestures seemed to show him as completely in sync with his singers, trying to give a flexible reading of the simple orchestral score. Unfortunately, the orchestra was not as responsive in following him, creating more than a few poorly aligned moments. One hopes that full houses for this production will help the company regain some of the money lost on the fall's first production, Aida, which caused a major cash shortfall as ticket sales fell off as the stock market deflated. The official word from inside the company is that the rumors of imminent bankruptcy are exaggerated, although the new leadership is prepared to make the cuts necessary to lower future costs to keep Baltimore Opera afloat. Let us hope that they are right, but opera lovers should also do their part and attend one of the remaining performances.

This production of Norma will be repeated two more times, tonight (November 21, 8 pm) and Sunday afternoon (November 23, 3 pm). A special promotion is in place that discounts ticket prices by $20 for tonight's performance.

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