What Would Make Norma “Relevant”?

What interest there was on the vocal  side of things came from Sondra Radvanovsky’s traversal of the title role. She worked at it with concentration, seeking to shape the long-lined  phrases and to dispatch the florid passages with point, and sometimes succeeding. She showed command of the diminuendo and of a stop-action subito piano thread of voice on high notes, though she undermined the effect of both through overuse. She improved as the evening progressed, and endured. But her voice has suffered since I last heard her as the Ballo Amelia, and its structural problems are exposed over the course of this challenging part. It is overbalanced toward the top, in a funnel shape, so that while there are some biggish notes and phrases on the high end, there is no sense of solidity in the middle, and only pinched, small tone as she works her way down through the passaggio. The great opening recitative and the “Casta diva” were worked through slowly and precariously, mannerisms substituting for firm, centered tone. Only intermittently could one receive the emotional messages the singer was trying to send.

Joyce DiDonato is an appealing performer with a nice timbral shine in upper-middle tessitura and good facility in passagework, but she was ill-advised to take on Adalgisa. Though I think it’s very much faute de mieux, I’m not automatically  against a lyrical mezzo or even soprano voice for this part. Thirty years ago in Paris, I heard a very satisfying Adalgisa (though strangely paired with her Norma, Ghena Dimitrova) from the French mezzo Martine Dupuy, who was more often identified with pre-Romantic styles. More recently Keri Alkema sang it pleasurably up at Caramoor, partnered with Angela Meade. But the voice has to have presence up and down the range. DiDonato’s, at best of light calibre for the role, thins at the top and fades toward the bottom; as with Radvanovsky, one heard many descending scale patterns that started promisingly but scurried out of earshot halfway down.

The men were not much above placeholder level. Joseph Calleja, the Pollione, sang, as we used to say, “without undue incident.” But his narrow span of dynamics and colors and over-equalized range—as if evened out in post-production—kept the excitement potential at a minimum, and he didn’t find much of interest in the character, either. The Oroveso, Matthew Rose, showed a monochromatic voice of baritonal timbre that sounded like it belonged farther up. He sang solidly in the opening scene, but pushed past the limits of his resonance at the end, and “Ah, del Tebro” fell flat. It’s been a long time since we had the likes of a Pinza or Pasero (or of my first Oroveso, Siepi) in this and similar roles. But can’t we find a bass? Maybe not.

Given all this shortfall, I guess I’d have to say that I, too, I couldn’t find much relevance here.  As for the production, I found in its favor that it didn’t strain for culture-war points. McVicar’s perception that the position of the conquered Gauls (he did go in search of Celts and Druids) was analogous to that of the subjugated Native Americans was perhaps too literally carried through in the set chez Norma (Robert Jones, des.), but at least he didn’t take us to the 1850s Great Plains. I found in its disfavor a failure to honor the Romantic aesthetic, which pervades the music and must surely find its reflection in the onstage world. The overall look was drab, and while it’s always difficult to find common ground visually and behavorially between modern preferences, either representational or abstract, and the heroic, idealized elements  and conventions inherent in works like this, that seems to me the nature of the challenge. Still: there is nothing in this production that precludes thrilling, moving performances. Perhaps they’ll come, at least on the female side, with later cast changes. And we should see what’s to be gathered about the alternative agreed upon by Ross and Tommasini, with La Bartoli heading up the Resistance.