Composer: Vincenzo Bellini
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi
Producer/Director: Sir David McVicar
Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky
Adalgisa: Joyce DiDonato
Pollione: Joseph Calleja
Oroveso: Matthew Rose
Opera being at its best a glorious musical feast, boosted by an inspired production if one gets really lucky, I figured that I could not go wrong kicking off my Metropolitan Opera season with the dream trio of beloved Met regulars Sondra Radvanovsky, Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Calleja in Vincenzo Bellini's perennial crowd-pleaser Norma. Sometimes a score tailor-made to brazenly display the many possibilities of well-trained voices and a love triangle that predictably will not end well after a string of big high-stakes scenes are all you need for a satisfying evening at the opera.
The main challenge of bringing a production of Norma to the stage is finding the soprano with enough vocal power and agility to handle bel canto style combined with the acting skills and stamina required to handle the non-stop emotional roller coaster (Considering killing one's offspring is not exactly an everyday occurrence for most women). I had missed Sondra Radvanovsky's 2013 turn as the constantly torn high priestess and was therefore positively thrilled to get another chance at hearing the dazzling soprano in such a dazzling part, and in equally dazzling company.
Throw in a new production by David McVicar, whose Met endeavors have ranged from truly outstanding, as in Giulio Cesare and Il Trovatore, to generally satisfactory, as in the three Tudor Queens, as well as an unusually short run with the starry cast, and I found myself in a packed opera house on a Wednesday night, more than ready to be dazzled.
Set in Gaul at the beginning of the Roman occupation, the story revolves around a Gallic high priestess, who has had a long-term secret liaison producing two children with the Roman proconsul, who in turn has fallen in love with - you've guessed it - a younger and blonder novice priestess, who happens to be a close companion of - you've guessed it again - the high priestess. Political and personal conflicts have frequently given good drama, and Norma is no exception.
The lead part is definitely not for the faint of heart, but then again soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has proven over and over that the expression "force of nature" may have been invented for her. After all, her successful feat of portraying the three Tudor Queens, incidentally under the direction of the same David McVicar, in one season at the Met is not attempted often, and for a good reason!
Norma, however, is not just an unstoppable powerhouse trail-blazing through the opera, but also has many issues to wrestle with, and Radvanovsky constantly displayed a keen sense of her character's inner turmoil. Her famously powerful voice has certainly remained so, and on Wednesday night she also impressed by assuredly rolling out those agonizing long Italian lines without sacrificing clarity or precision, while forcefully exploding in anger when the right moment came. Hell has no fury like this Norma scorned!
It can be easy to dismiss Adalgisa as the new pretty young thing on the block, but director David McVicar and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato thankfully would have none of that. Sporting an extremely becoming, if perplexingly out-of-place, pixie haircut, this Adalgisa was a full-fledged character dealing with complex emotions of her own, which consequently made her a credible rival to the formidable Norma.
Her dedicated singing, bright and expressive, and acting, passionate and subtle, gave heart-breaking authenticity to the inexperienced novice who unwittingly found herself in a rather prickly situation and desperately yearned to do the right thing.
As Pollione, the man who had stolen the hearts of both women, tenor Joseph Carreja was vocally and physically as fiercely ardent as ever. Even if his Roman warrior/lover initially appeared to be slightly on the boorish side, his final scene with Norma was all about self-sacrifice and redemption, cleverly bringing out his inherent sensitiveness and humanity.
In smaller parts, bass Matthew Rose was a wonderful Oroveso, Norma's father, and contributed some welcome muscular gravity to the proceedings. The Met Chorus grabbed every opportunity to make themselves heard with unbreakable conviction, and were definitely in a rousing mood as they prepared to fight the occupants.
The terrific singing would have been worth the investment of time and money in itself, but the sets were also, if not brilliantly inventive, at least visually attractive and smartly set up. The forest made of branchless trees, while not particularly original, was fittingly dark and foreboding, while Norma's secret dwelling, a dome-shaped yurt all organic earth tones and shabby chic decor, was literally hiding underneath it.
In line with the life-in-the-forest theme, everybody looked appropriately disheveled. When the Gallic druids and warriors finally decided to take up arms against the Romans, fire was brought in on torches and a bright red background lit up. These lighting elements added colorful touches to the generally somber set without distracting from the on-going action.
The highly dramatic score found a tremendous vehicle in the MET Orchestra, and Carlo Rizzi did an exceptional job bringing out the vivid colors, soaring intensity and compelling melodies that Bellini had put on paper. Combine that the reliably magnificent singing coming from the stage, and the performance had all the right ingredients to be a truly memorable evening at the opera. Except that...
Right after intermission , Act II started with one of the most exciting scenes of the entire opera, in which Norma and Adalgisa go from rivals to allies, and having two of the most electrifying singers in the world to bring it to life only raised already high expectations. The expected magical experience was, however, ruined by the couple next to me who was leisurely sipping the drinks they had brought in from the bar (The smell of the alcohol was bad, the noise of the ice cubes was worse) and the teenager in the row behind me who was intermittently taking bites out of a sandwich wrapped in crisp plastic. And suddenly the evening became another, much less welcome, kind of memorable.