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Meade and Zajick, Trionfo in 'Norma'

Dolora Zajick (Adalgisa) and Angela Meade (Norma) in Norma, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO -- more images)
It has been quite a couple of years for bel canto opera at Ionarts, when we have reviewed productions of Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor (Washington National Opera), I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Caramoor), and La Sonnambula (Washington Concert Opera). Bel canto opera is supposed to be all about beautiful singing, and by that criterion the new production of Bellini's Norma, heard on Saturday night, is a triumph, with top-notch singing deep into the cast roster. If you are looking for compelling theater -- a plot that makes sense, characters that have depth and subtlety -- bel canto opera is probably not for you. Updating of time or other unusual directorial ideas can deepen the silly stories of most of these operas -- David Alden showed how it can be done with his Lucia two years ago -- but there is something to be said for just letting the singing stand for itself.

Soprano Angela Meade was a knockout in the title role, which she is singing on stage for the first time. It was not a standout because she was the most powerful Norma or the one with the strongest high notes, nor did she give the character the same kind of dramatic edge as some other more famous Normas. Meade deployed her velvety voice to give a truly beautiful finish to this mother of all bel canto roles, with a suave, hypnotic Casta diva, for example. (Compare this to the last Norma we reviewed here, Hasmik Papian at Baltimore Opera.) There was power in Meade's voice, too, allowing her to soar over the orchestra and to stand her ground with the much more experienced and frankly just louder Adalgisa of Dolora Zajick, but it was the elegance of the performance that remains with me, both in Meade's calm presence and in the cleanness and warmth of her tone. We knew from Zajick's WNO debut, in a potent Cavalleria rusticana in 2008, that she can fill the Kennedy Center Opera House with sound. What we did not know was that she could handle the more subtle demands of a bel canto role like this one: a messa di voce that could take your breath away, a fine pianissimo (not as refined as the younger Meade), and considerable agility. Norma is really all about the solos and duets of the two leads, and in this production there is no doubt of that.

Tenor Rafael Davila had a fairly good company debut as Pollione, the Roman proconsul who has had two children with Norma, the supposedly chaste priestess of the local druids in Gaul. Some of the notes at the top were not quite stable and it was not always exactly a clarion tone, but there was beauty when he needed it, even if he was clearly second fiddle to Meade and Zajick. Bass Dmitry Belosselskiy was a puissant Oroveso, Norma's father, with a moving scene with Meade toward the end of the second act, when he learns of his daughter's betrayal. The two supporting roles were filled by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, with the Clotilde of Julia Mintzer standing out for vocal vitality and compelling presence (she was one of the best parts of the New Opera Initiative performance last fall), while Mauricio Miranda had a very off night as Flavio.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Washington National Opera’s ‘Norma’ takes all that symbolism rather literally (Washington Post, March 11)

Susan Dormady Eisenberg, Angela Meade Riffs on Her Dazzling New Role as She Debuts Norma at Washington National Opera (Huffington Post, March 11)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera's 'Manon Lescaut,' 'Norma' hit mark with Racette, Meade (Artsmash, March 12)
The new staging, by theater director Anne Bogart, is minimal but also traditional (like the vaguely medieval costumes by James Schuette), with a single set (designed by Neil Patel) showing a steeply raked incline with a ceremonial pit, flanked by wooden structures on either side, the whole thing in a lunar color range of white on gray. The backdrop, a large somewhat abstract depiction of the moon, à la Arthur Dove, adds to the sense of ritual distance, heightened by the mostly slow movements given to the singers. At times, a white cloth descended to create the sense of an inner room, but for the most part it is a static setting that, combined with the motionlessness of the opera -- little happens and the characters sing about that little happening a lot -- may bore some viewers. The only element out of place in this becalmed vision of the world of the ancient druids was at the podium, where young conductor Daniele Rustioni made his company debut. By his histrionic gestures -- leaps and mane shakes a-plenty -- he indicated a general lack of patience with the tidal pull of the score, often having to roll back on tempi that he initiated far too quickly. In spite of it all, orchestra and chorus both sounded strong, rounding out a performance -- if not a staging -- that should iron itself out quite nicely in the weeks to come.

This production runs through March 24, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. It is, we remind you, the last opera production of the WNO season.

The set designer of this production, Neil Patel, confirms the inspiration of Arthur Dove in his abstract backdrop, in the comments here.

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