Fiasco! Fiasco! Solemn fiasco!
Vincenzo Bellini was in despair. Opening night had not gone well. The seasoned audience at La Scala had greeted the sensational, 30-year old hitmaker’s latest tragedia lirica with untypical bewilderment. Norma, the red hot young composer’s emotionally blunt, supremely demonstrative musical dissection of love and honour had left the venerable house reeling. So much anguish, so much opera even by Milanese standards. Disappointed and unnerved, Bellini decamped to Naples then on to his home in Sicily to await the end of the run. Contrary to expectations, the production played for months. By the time the final curtain fell almost 40 performances later, the fog of befuddlement surrounding the premiere had largely dissipated.
Soprano Giuditta Pasta, the toast of Italian opera, had laid claim to immortality, the first in a fabled procession of legendary prima donnas to sing the opera’s vaulting, supremely virtuosic lead. More than Bellini’s tremulous, high-strung drama, more even than his lush, melodic score, it was her presence by all accounts, theatrical and commanding, that had struck at the hearts and souls of the increasingly enthusiastic crowds. She and Bellini would remain fast friends and collaborators, possibly even lovers, until the composer’s untimely death in 1835.
Over 180 years later, embedded in Bellini’s extravagant music custom-crafted for the legendary attrice cantante, the echo of Pasta’s voice can still be heard, ghost-like between the notes.
Channelling musical history, the Canadian Opera Company launches its 2016/17 Season with a potent production of Bellini’s legendary classic starring the latest claimant to Pasta’s legacy, world soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. This is a Norma of considerable importance.
The scenario, largely self-invented by Bellini himself in partnership with long-time librettist and confidant Felice Romani, is deceptively simple — a stock love triangle fraught with simmering emotion.
The first wave of invading Romans has occupied early Britain. The Druids, elevated to immensely romantic proportions in true 19th century style, are straining under the yoke of their ironically barbaric overlords. Sacred groves have been overrun, temples defiled. Norma, high priestess to the Celts, finds herself trapped in a web of self-woven deceit after secretly giving birth to a son and daughter by the headstrong Roman commander, Pollione. Somewhere deep inside her, the flickering flame of a never forgotten passion still burns. The Pax Romana she has long preached is as precarious as it is self-serving. Her path to peace of mind is a treacherous one.
Enter Norma’s attendant, Adalgisa. Though forbidden by holy dictates, the beautiful young novice confesses that she has been sorely tempted to surrender to the advances of a determined suitor. His name, she innocently reveals, is Pollione.
Norma is shattered. The guilt-ridden priestess, abandoned and betrayed, flies into a mad rage. Murder fills her heart but, try as she might, she cannot force herself to slaughter her children, enduring reminders of her illicit past. Supressing her anguish, forever noble and proud, Norma summons the Druids to assemble before her. She has broken her vow of chastity, she declares, and, as duly ordained, must submit to purification in the cleansing flames of sacred fire. Pollione, in an outrageously gratuitous, gloriously flamboyant operatic turn, is dragged onstage. Struck by Norma’s bravery, shamed by his discreditable behaviour, the repentant Roman joins her atop a blazing pyre.
Much critical ink has been spilled lamenting the absence of a pronounced dramatic arc to enliven Norma’s unapologetically linear narrative. For all the wholehearted outbursts of choral bravura and full throated calls to arms, by the close of the opera the Druid rebellion has sputtered and stalled. Not a single blow for freedom has been struck. Apart from a few brief surreptitious incursions by Pollione, the hated, roughshod Romans make virtually no physical impression on Norma’s landscape. The enemy cohorts remain resolutely encamped from curtain to curtain hidden from view far offstage. This is quite clearly to be something much more menacing than a clash of brute force.
In this the COC’s current telling of Bellini’s startlingly psychological tale, director Kevin Newbury makes it strikingly clear that we are witnessing a battle of cultures, hostile and savagely opposed — an insidious war of wills. The struggle to come between pagan Britons and allegedly civilized Romans will be fought, not with the rows of swords prominently on display in set designer David Korins’ fortified pagan temple, not even with the siege tower the Druids have built, but with brawny symbols and emblems. Giant statues of their bull god, a freshly hewn branch of enchanted mistletoe, a sacred stand of silvery birch, the Celts have magic on their side. Norma has but to speak the word to release its power. But, of course, she cannot. Self-hatred is her invincible enemy. Death is her only release.
Existentialism may not have had a name in his time but Bellini knew it existed.
However wrong it may be to dismiss Norma’s libretto as flat and unsophisticated or, in the case of the current COC/San Francisco Opera/Opera of Chicago/Gran Teatre del Liceu co-production, directorially mundane, there is no denying the essential truth of the matter here. The singing in this and any other production of Bellini’s redoubtable masterpiece inevitably reigns supreme.
Norma, reduced to its essence, is essentially a precious treasure of song lying at the centre of a hopelessly intricate musical labyrinth. To reach the core of its expression, singers tackling principal roles, particularly those of Norma and Adalgisa, must thread their way through a maze of perilous high Cs and profound B flats. The composer’s “long, long lines” so admired by Verdi are opera raised to the level of extreme art. Sudden octave drops, spectacular runs and trills, Bellini creates some of the loftiest, most elaborate coloratura ever written. Add to that an endless succession of breathtaking cadenzas and Norma positively sparkles, arguably the brightest jewel in the bel canto crown.
Radvanovsky wears it with rightful self-assurance.
This is a radiant, incandescent priestess, an instant operatic icon, part of the great continuum, Pasta to Ponselle, Callas to Caballé yet clearly secure in her own spotlight. Growly and dark with ominous contralto colours tinting her lower reach, warm and golden in her mid range, shimmering and soaring at the top, Radvanovsky’s voice is, quite simply, miraculous. Her rendition of Norma’s illustrious signature aria, Casta Diva (“Chaste goddess”), a desperate prayer for peace, heartbreakingly whispered pianissimo, flung fortissimo to the heavens, bursts with pathos. Seamlessly seguing into Bellini’s quick time cabaletta Ah! bello a me ritorna (“Ah, bring back to me the beauty of our first love”), Radvanovsky electrifies.
Appearing as Adalgisa, acclaimed Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard brings grace and tenderness flashed with spirit to her vocal characterization of the guileless initiate cruelly sideswiped by love. Her instrument, clear, unencumbered with a gorgeous burnished timbre, wonderfully reflects the glowing, deep affection she feels for the woman she supports as friend and mentor. The on-stage bond between her and Radvanovsky is palpable. Leonard’s contribution to the beautiful duet Mira, o Norma (“Behold, o Norma”) with its gleaming, harmony and filigreed counterpoint, provides an exquisite balance of tone. A performance of immense artistry.
Tenor Russell Thomas singing the role of Pollione, though gifted with few showpiece solos by Bellini, displays a seemingly intuitive feel for the rhythms and cadences of the composer’s powerful, declamatory recitative. That said, Thomas’ handling of the stalwart Roman’s Act I cantabile aria, Mecco all’altar di Venere (“With me at the altar of Venus”) exploding into Me protegge, me difende (“A power protects me and defends me”), is nothing short of heroic.
As Oroveso, Norma’s father and Druid chieftain, bass Dimitry Ivashchenko brings epic strength and gravitas to the Celtic camp. Recent Ensemble Company graduate soprano Aviva Fortunata is Norma’s watchful, compassionate confidante, Clotilde. Charles Sy is a fine supportive Flavio, Pollione’s comrade-in-arms.
The men and women of the Canadian Opera Company Chorus do a good deal of heavy vocal lifting throughout the course of this resonant production, giving vibrant voice to the imperilled Druid community, intensifying the dark, moody atmosphere charged with superstition.
Leading an expansive Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, visiting conductor Stephen Lord sets a luxurious pace allowing the full sweep of Bellini’s overtly theatrical score to wash over us. Playing is consistently animated, harmonies exquisite, crescendi heart-pounding.
Bellini wrote only 10 operas in his tragically short lifetime, a mere handful compared to older, well-established colleagues like Rossini and Donizetti, both of whom would outlive him. Dead at 34, the “Swan of Catania” made a lasting impact on the history of opera, one far more compelling than his modest output would suggest. Norma defines Bellini. Time has no hold on him.
And unquestionably not on Sondra Radvanovsky, either.