People in the opera world travel miles to hear a voice like Angela Meade’s. Many made such a pilgrimage Saturday night. In the soprano’s debut in the fully-staged production of Norma at the Washington National Opera, this voice proved pretty spectacular.
Composer Vincenzo Bellini and Librettist Felice Romani created a main character that some claim is the hardest soprano role in the operatic canon. Vocally, it demands moving between passages that must be sung delicately yet demand a singer to make vocal leaps with nerves of steel. The style moves between a flowing bel canto lyricism, a style of classical singing noted both for its purity of tone and agility of sound, and the powerful vocal equipment needed for a Wagnerian heroine.
So, how do you describe what Meade’s voice can do? Casta diva is an aria that many will recognize even if never having seen Norma from which it came. Meade cast out note after note into space like a spider throwing out a silken thread then riding it, dangling, dropping down, bobbing as in a breeze fantastically, climbing back up, all seemingly effortlessly. She has a way of building power then suddenly lifting off into a high space as if threading her voice through the eye of the smallest needle, seemingly a tiny gem of a sound but one heard in every corner of the Opera House.
Then there is the moment at the very end of this opera where Norma, her father, and her lover sing together. As all three of them face the unthinkable climax, they build in strength and conviction. Meade with Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy and Tenor Rafael Davila cranked that sound to a most glorious fortissimo, the size of which rang that opera house in a way I’d never heard before.
Music Director Daniele Rustioni obtained a commanding sound from the orchestra that matched the singing and belied the fact that it was his first time leading this orchestra. Under him, the orchestra had a grand size Saturday evening.
Size is an appropriate word to describe this opera and production. Size of voices. Size of operatic score. I’ve mentioned size in sheer length and degree of difficulty— the opera is the equivalent of King Lear in Shakespeare. It’s an opera that demands heft. Physically, these lead singers had it. But the work also needs deep emotional heft too, the kind that a personality like Maria Callas, a legendary Norma, could bring to the title role. This essential ingredient was not consistent on Saturday night.
After all, even more than most operas, the plot strains credulity. Norma, a Druid virgin head priestess has had an affair with a Roman proconsul, and not just an affair, mind you, but she’s raising their two children, yet no one knows about this. The Roman Pollione, however, has fallen for a younger and more beautiful priestess, but the casting makes this a bit confusing. Adalgisa returns Pollione’s love but going up against the fury of Norma, matching note for note in a dueling sopranos duet, she then rediscovers her loyalty to both the High Priestess and their religion. It all ends up in a Druidic rite where the sacrificial virgin is not one.
Welcome Rafael Davila, the tenor who, in his debut with the WNO, played Norma’s Roman lover. He took some emotional as well as vocal risks in this role, and though there were moments when the sound felt pushed, his physical and emotional commitment to fulfilling the story stood out.
Dmitry Belosselskiy, as Norma’s father, was stunning vocally and physically impressive. This rich bass voice is placed forward and feels wonderfully present and expressive. With simple economy of means, such as a hand pressed over his heart when the man faces the toughest choice a father can face in meeting out justice upon his own daughter, Belosselskiy demonstrated he is a true singer-actor who can carry strong roles.
Dolora Zajick, an opera singer with impressive credentials, gave us some lovely moments, especially in her singing with Meade. However, the occasional facial distortion to create certain vowels on high notes was off putting. I may be off base but I’m wondering if the “advanced” physics of vocal production, not to mention the new demands that HD has made on up-close opera, wouldn’t suggest it’s time to tackle habits of tension and physical limitations in the opera world. To me, Zajick and other aspects of this production have taken us back uncomfortably, to my mind, to old school opera.
There were aspects in this production that exposed both the plot and the singers unfavorably.
Frankly, the choices for chorus were just baffling to me. The men, in an odd assortment of costumes, designed by James Schuette, seemed less from any Druid world but rather sent from Central Casting from some epic about the Silk Road. The female dance chorus featured six lithe maidens all in white and were choreographed to express a style that seemed some hybrid form fished from Egyptian waters then run through a modern dance school from the early twentieth-century. The choreography was very artfully executed but it too felt out of sinc with other aspects of the production and only drew attention to the sometime stage business function of the group.
Closes March 24, 2013
The Opera House of the
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $315
Details and tickets
The single abstract set with its cool monotones – kind of interesting – was never really used. Stage left a wall with slits represented a Roman fortress, but it looked more like a northern Atlantic Nazi fortification from WWII – manned by one lonely Roman centurion standing in one window for one scene – and it stood there throughout the evening with black holes gaping emptily. Stage right, great beams leaned against a white wall and presented little else but an obstacle course for Norma. Were these meant to symbolize an abstract forest, a nod to the last gasp of a Druidic world impacted by the “civilized” Roman conquerors into environmental degradation? I may be grasping at straws here, but if so, it was the rare attempt to make some connection for a contemporary audience.
Even the big white disc in the second act, symbolic of the Druidic first moon, looked at first like a circus bouncer to catch falling high-wire acts stored up on its side at the back of the stage. But then the effective lighting by Akerlind, creating striations on that silver moon, had high-impact (as did the way he used lighting coming through the floorboards and those beam-trees.) The moon rose and rose and rose.
Meanwhile, in the staging of characters, movement was kept to an absolutely minimum, giving the entire evening a static quality.
Director Bogart is an accomplished and insightful director. This opera was a curious mash. I go back to the singing and remind myself of the much beauty to be found in this art form that ultimately is what it’s about. In this production it was the thing I take away with gratitude.
Norma . Composed by Vincenzo Bellini . Libretto by Felice Romani . Director: Anne Bogart . Conducted by Daniele Rustioni . Produced by Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith