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Subject: Norma on Oct. 3rd
From: Geoffrey Riggs <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Geoffrey Riggs <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 5 Oct 2017 17:44:00 -0400
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It was easily the most deeply stirring and involving NORMA I have ever
attended.  In addition, a number of extended sections throughout (a
spellbinding "Casta Diva", a shimmering "Mira, o Norma", a touching "Qual
cor tradisti", and more) emerged just about as musically and as vocally
beautiful as is humanly possible.  I also never thought to see a NORMA in my
lifetime where all three principals would each have their special moment, in
which both the vocally beautiful and the deeply expressive would be fused. 
That happened on the 3rd.

For tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione, it happened for him in the last act. 
I've never seen or heard Pollione's change of heart achieved so convincingly
or sung so movingly.  At the close of an evening that had found him sounding
sometimes ravishing (the duet with Adalgisa) and sometimes uncertain (his
opening scena and elsewhere), he came through in the last scene with a sheer
control of phrasing, of breath line and of tone fully equal to the best
singing I've ever heard from him.  He is the possessor of one of the most
beautiful tenor instruments before the public today, and he achieved his
full potential, vocally and dramatically, in that final scene.

Mezzo Joyce Di Donato's Adalgisa set an even higher standard.  When first
coming forward from the rest of the throng, following Norma's great opening
scena and exit, Di Donato was fully warmed up from the start.  It takes a
lot to drive Christa Ludwig's entrance prayer out of my head.  But Di Donato
almost did that.  It was not an isolated moment either.  Throughout the
role, individual solos -- even a single telling line here or there -- were
cast in sudden relief, as if springing spontaneously out of the moment,
newly lit up.  One example out of many was the startling -- and genuine --
moment of lost control when she burst out with a keen "Taci? T'arretri?"
(sp.?) to Pollione upon learning his secret.  I let out a gasp it was so
sudden -- yet utterly musical.  Everything this artist does, even in the
context of scorching dramatic intensity, remains purely musical.  She has
superb control over bel canto phrasing, deployed with a voice that is more
refulgent today than ever before.  Her suppleness in the most intricate
passagework, her deep understanding of Bellini's ornate vocal writing as a
projection of character and feeling, even her infallible trill -- all this
enhanced a portrait that was as deeply affecting in its own way as the best
that I have heard, either on disc or in person, from Tourel, Simionato,
Ludwig, Horne, Von Stade, or Zajick.

Now we come to our heroine, the Norma of Sondra Radvanovsky.  I am well
aware of the highly individual nature of her singing, an individuality that
perplexes some while it enthralls many others.  For me, when just reading
the NORMA score and only listening to it in my mind's ear, I have long
conjured up a "sound picture" of Norma's music that (merely accidentally?)
reflects many of the qualities that duly emerge in written descriptions of
those specialists of the 1820s and '30s who pioneered the select handful of
roles in the daunting Norma mold (Bolena, Gemma, the Devereux Elisabetta,
and so on, along with Norma): an extremely flexible, agile instrument,
capable of sounding quite lyrical and fleet at some moments and of achieving
overwhelming grandeur at others; an instrument of an almost alto depth in
the lower register and a brilliant soprano sparkle and ease at the top; an
instrument that can convey touching vulnerability at one moment and awesome
majesty and power the next.  These are the apparent characteristics that
emerge in various contemporary references to the impact of pioneering divas
of the early 19th century like Ronzi, Colbran, or Pasta (Norma's creator in
1831).

Ultimately, I am more than willing to embrace certain eccentricities if I
can still have those essentials of a prismatic vocal persona, the
chiaroscuro effects from sable black to vibrant red, from crushing power to
delicate lace, all put at the service of a role deliberately designed by its
composer as a vocal chameleon, requiring a true integration of many
ostensible opposites through the most disciplined musicianship and the
deepest dramatic investment.  It is not just that Radvanovsky, warts and
all, has these prismatic qualities in abundance.  It's that no one else
today is even this type!  The other great sopranos and mezzos today -- and
there are unquestionably a number of truly great artists today in both
groups -- remain identifiably soprano or mezzo at all times (nothing wrong
with that), and identifiably a particular type of soprano at that or a
particular type of mezzo (with all her dazzling qualities, even Di Donato,
still a mezzo, adopts two traditional adjustments of Adalgisa's music common
to a number of other mezzos traditionally taking on this role that was meant
originally for soprano).

At the same time, when one heard Radvanovsky on the 3rd, her low notes could
sound like a mezzo's one moment, her high pianissimo notes could sound like
a lyric soprano's the next, her thundering notes at full throttle could
sound downright Wagnerian, and so it went.  This kind of multidimensional
abundance of color is not given to anyone else on the opera stage today.  So
it's not just a question of relative vocal quality from soprano to soprano.
 It's a question of basic quantity: the very type of voice that can
sufficiently mirror in some way the "encyclopedic quality" (Bellini's own
term) of Norma's original creator, Giuditta Pasta.  Aside from Radvanovsky,
I know of no one else today who even approaches this bewildering (and yes,
very, very rare) multidimensional category.  It's not even a question of
good or bad; it's a question of whether or not the right type of
multidimensional Norma voice is being heard here at all.  Today, if we want
to hear anything approximating the prismatic "encyclopedic" Pasta effect
that Bellini clearly had in mind, Radvanovsky is our only choice.

-- and I also find that she's now developed into a fascinating stage
performer as well.  In her opening scene -- and her director, David McVicar,
should also be given some of the credit here -- her luscious-voiced,
elegantly tapered "Casta Diva", with its exquisite piano singing and a
lovely trill, performed in a virtual trance on a platform upstage,
contrasted vividly with her private yearnings expressed feverishly downstage
in the vulnerable tones deployed for her ensuing cabaletta, the "Ah bello".
 In the next scene, her initial guardedness with Adalgisa in her nervous
concern over the hidden children staying quiet versus her eventual startled
realization that Adalgisa was describing feelings very much akin to her own
for Pollione were all developed vividly during a sequence that can't be more
than roughly ten minutes or so.  Her efforts at putting Adalgisa at her ease
then emerged both touching and clear.  It was also here that we were treated
to some of her most delicate and flawless pianissimi.  When virtually
ambushed by the later discovery of Pollione's betrayal, both scorn and the
deepest hurt were unmistakable, capped by a pulverizing high D at the end of
the ensemble that seemed musically, vocally and dramatically inevitable.

In the opening scene of the second act, we saw how Radvanovsky was able both
to maintain the continuing suggestion of a woman of authority in her
demeanor and also convey a deep vulnerability at the same time.  In fact,
the dignity that still came from this tortured figure only enhanced one of
the most shocking and painful moments in this entire sequence: her abruptly
kneeling in front of Adalgisa!  Di Donato, just as brilliant here, conveyed
excruciating embarrassment at Adalgisa's seeing her revered mentor kneeling
before her.  But make no mistake: It was the way Radvanovsky had set us up
for this moment that made her sudden kneeling so brilliantly uncomfortable
for the spectator.  Of course, kudos here as well to the director McVicar.

Even in the last scene, at the end of a very strenuous evening, the vocal
and the dramatic were still fused in Radvanovsky's performance.  Here, I
can't recall the last time I have personally experienced inn the house such
a staggering degree of varied dynamics and vocal colors in a NORMA
perforrmance.  Conveyed were both a woman beside herself with fury and yet
still deeply in love, that inner conflict tearing her apart.  Very
occasionally, the intensity here even impacted on her generally assured
vocalism: Four or five of her virtually textbook pianissimi suddenly took on
occcasional gravel for the first time in the evening.  However, the two most
poignant pianissimi, "Son io" and "un prego ancor", emerged as flawlessly --
and as expressively -- as anything in her first duet with Adalgisa.  Here
too, as in the earlier scenes, her physical knack for dominating the stage
picture while retaining a vivid human vulnerability at the same time came
through.  I won't soon forget the final tableau, as -- with her back to the
audience! -- she advances inexorably toward the pyre upstage.

Alongside the three dazzling principals, the supporting singers still came
through creditably enough.  Personally, I found bass Matthew Rose's Oroveso
essentially monochromatic, and unlike his distinguished colleagues, he is
not a real bel canto stylist.  But his voice does have some presence.  He
sings, I feel, in a strictly blunt, efficient way.  I have to wonder if his
singing might really start to pall a bit in a longer role.  The Flavio,
tenor Adam Diegel, was steady and clear enough for the part, while the
Clotilde of Michelle Bradley was a glorious surprise: Here is a voice of
true quality, with a warmth and a beauty that surely destines her for
greater things.  Not surprisingly, she is a member of the Lindemann Young
Artist Development Program, as was Radvanovsky when she was coming up.

Personally, I felt that the whole performance was generally incandescent
despite and not because of Carlo Rizzi's conducting.  From where I was
sitting, a Balcony Box, the balances seemed way off.  Again and again,
especially in the Overture, but the problem persisted on and off throughout,
critical themes in the higher slenderer instruments were simply obliterated
by "rhythm-section-itis" as a whole.  I seriously doubt that anyone there
who didn't know the opera cold could ever, ever, have recognized any of the
moving themes heard later on in the work as having been already played in
the Overture.  The noise that passed for an Overture bore virtually no
resemblance to the rest of the evening at all.  Problems of balance
persisted later on between orchestra and voices as well.  Radvanovsky, of
course, can never be covered, thank goodness, and Di Donato generally held
her own admirably as well.  But at other critical moments, it was another
story.  For instance, Calleja's first-act cabaletta was virtually
obliterated, and in his final measures, not one note of his came through,
including the final "abatero" (sp.?).  I even had a fleeting thought that he
might be miming those last measures instead of singing them! ;-)

Seriously, though, my usual experience at that Balcony Box is that it has
some of the best and most honest acoustics in the house.  So my guess is
that all these problems can be laid squarely at Rizzi's feet. 
Unfortunately, in the last act, even Rizzi's customary energy began to
dissipate, and Radvanovsky and Calleja had to carry the scene unaided --
which they did, superbly.

It was the total immersion in music and drama by the three principals, plus
director David McVicar's inspired personenregie, that made this NORMA one of
the most deeply satisfying experiences I've ever had in the opera house. 
This NORMA revival is an object lesson in showing how, in opera, the very
greatest singing of all is only possible with the greatest acting and the
greatest acting is only possible with the greatest musicianship.  I'm aware
that some others have remarked of this production that the first and last
scenes are perhaps too dimly lit.  It certainly did not strike me that way,
and in the sheer imagination shown throughout the evening in the development
of the three main characters, specifically, and in the way that their
tangled relationships were revealed vividly, sometimes painfully, through
scrupulous attention to Bellini's music at every hinge in the drama, we
could discover all over again the musico-dramatic genius of NORMA's
composer, Vincenzo Bellini.     

This NORMA revival is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and Radvanovsky has
only two performances left in this run.  Go.

Geoffrey Riggs

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