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More 'Norma'

Angela Meade in Norma, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

Even theater and cinema require a suspension of disbelief, a surrendering of the doubts of everyday perception to the narrative tide presented to the senses. Opera, however, is in a class by itself in this department, as "the extravagant art" (in the memorable phrase of scholar Herbert Lindenberger) -- "an exotic and irrational entertainment," as Samuel Johnson put it. Anyone who wants to enjoy opera has to accept that in the world on that stage, people sing instead of speak, to the accompaniment of an orchestra. All sorts of far-fetched things happen, including plot twists few would be willing to accept in theater or cinema, but somehow the emotional heightening achieved by music makes it all satisfying, in a way that has little to do with realism, theatrical or otherwise. Different viewers will have different limitations on just how much they can accept visually, but with many opera lovers, including your reviewer, if the singing is excellent, many other shortcomings can be easily overlooked -- like the Norma of Angela Meade, who is in her 30s, addressing the Adalgisa of Dolora Zajick, who is twice Meade's age, as "giovinetta."

The singing in Washington National Opera's current production of Bellini's Norma, all critics agree, is excellent, indeed more than excellent. I have already written about both the cast and the production, by theater director Anne Bogart, in my review of opening night, and Robert R. Reilly added a second opinion about the second performance. The chance to hear the third and fourth performances this past week, on Friday and Monday nights, offered a chance to reassess the production. If I could have heard all six performances, I would have, solely for the opportunity to hear this cast, which is top-notch. Further hearings confirmed that Angela Meade is one of the voices you will want to hear in years to come, supported with consummate power and professionalism by Dolora Zajick as Adalgisa and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Oroveso. Tenor Rafael Davila actually got better as Pollione later in the run, with more security and legato smoothness at the top of his range, if still not that much sound at the bottom. Unfortunately, when I wrote that Mauricio Miranda "had a very off night as Flavio," I was being kind. It was somewhat surprising to me that he was not replaced later in the run: surely the company can produce a better singer to round out this otherwise excellent cast.

First Performance:

Charles T. Downey, Meade and Zajick, Trionfo in 'Norma' (Ionarts, March 11)

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

Second Performance:

Robert R. Reilly, Second Opinion: WNO 'Norma' — Good Opera, Bad Theater (Ionarts, March 15)
If Anne Bogart's production -- static, ritualized, abstract -- did not really grow on me, it did not grate on me more either, even by the end of the third performance I saw. The libretto places the action in one of the groves sacred to the Druids (foresta sacra de' druidi), but Oroveso's first line instructs the Druids to go up the hills ("Ite sul colle, o Druidi!"), and Neil Patel's organic set provides just such a steeply raked incline. Not much later, Pollione sings of a demonic power that seems to be leading him into a yawning pit ("l'abisso aperto"), which may have inspired the sort of pit that opens up on the right side of the stage. After having sat house right at the first and third performances, I saw the show from house left on Monday night, and it is much less flattering visually, because the scene is dominated by the more squared-off façade to the right representing the Roman occupiers.

The sound is also better from the right side of the house, with the singers more direct and exposed on the left, and the two powerful crescendos at the end of the opera's final number not sounding as perfectly balanced from that position in relation to the orchestra. Conductor Daniele Rustioni settled into the score later in the run, hitting the right tempi with greater assurance and fewer histrionic gestures. The orchestra continued to sound quite good, with some bad intonation issues in the trumpets appearing during the third performance, including the off-stage banda effects. The orchestra remained in its new seating arrangement, introduced by music director Philippe Auguin in the performances of Manon Lescaut, with the strings and harp at the center, the woodwinds on the left and the brass and percussion on the right. The intention is to create a better balance in the house, and it seemed to work much better on the right side of the house than on the left.

Two performances of this production remain, on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Readers who hear any of the later performances are invited to share their thoughts in the comments section.

1 comment:

Simon said...

Charles, Thanks for your reports from later on in the run. I wasn't a fan of Bogart's direction either, as it didn't really do much to support the drama. I only had the chance to attend the opening night performance but did file a review for Bachtrack: