Cher Public

Text appeal

What makes Norma such a high-profile role in the soprano repertory? Like the druids in the opera, we the audience anxiously await her entrance, wonder how she will sing, ponder her ability, and condemn her if she does not deliver what we expected. As for the character, there is no forgiveness for a soprano who tackles this role; we all seem to have a picture in our heads of how the role should sound, should be sung, and should be acted. The ghosts of the great Normas of the past confirm and solidify our beliefs.  

A lot of this must have been on Mariella Devia’s mind as she pondered the end of her career and wondered if she should take on this pinnacle of belcanto. In an interview a few years ago, she even mentioned how it would be impossible for her to sing it at La Scala because of the “Callas widows”. The question for her must have been: Do I try to meet the expectations or chart my own path, in line with my own voice and dramatic temperament?

For those of us who have followed this wonderful singer’s career the answer was obvious and on display two years ago in Bologna when she finally debuted the role. And the pushback was swift: blogging opera queens in Italy (and some respected music critic as well) lashed at her for presenting a Norma “lite” devoid not only of dramatic fire and intensity, but also of the vocal weight required by the role.

Last week I got a chance to assess those criticisms first hand, at Devia’s second outing as Norma at the Palau Les Arts in Valencia in a new production directed by David Livermore. And as the lights in the wonderful Calatrava hall went down and I settled on my fourth row orchestra seat, I suddenly was aware of my own expectations, of my own doubts that Devia could pull this off, and of my own nervousness around a trip to Valencia explicitly made to hear her.

Devia makes the role her own. There is no doubt that the voice is a tad small for the part, and that her low register (never her strong suit) is the area of her voice that shows the most conspicuous signs of age-related wear (Devia will be 67 next month). For a “drammatico d’agilita’” role like Norma, these could be serious liabilities (and indeed the focus of much of the criticism of the 2013 performances), if it weren’t that musical intelligence and technical command can more than make up for it.

Devia’s approach to Norma starts from the text. Every word is measured and weighted, all in function of finding the perfect phrasing and the appropriate dramatic accents. If an artist has technique and total control of her voice, volume and heft are not the only way to express rage, desperation, and vengeance. So when Norma rages (like the trio at the end of Act 1) Devia uses her technique, the way to attack a note or a phrase, a way of bending the vocal line to accentuate a key word in the text to give us a memorable and truly terrifying Norma.

And then, there are the known Devia quantities: the pure, beautiful singing, the astounding legato, the amazing capacity to project her voice above the orchestra and the chorus, the ability to negotiate the most difficult coloratura passages with ease. So “Casta diva” is sung in a beautiful “fil di voce”, and magnificent breadth control, with Devia drawing the audience in, almost inviting them to join her on stage. The cabaletta “Ah bello a me ritorna” with a second stanza filled with ornate and fiendishly difficult variations.

A wonderful, harrowing, monologue opening of Act 2 found Devia once again relying on the music and the text to bare Norma’s soul to us, as she debates killing her own children. And then the crowing achievement, a death scene in which her elegant singing and her mastery of legato brought at least one audience member to tears.

A great artist charts his or her own course. On that account Devia showed us once again last night that she is a great artist. While remaining true to the music and the character, she offered us her own way to embody Norma, and what a great, magnificent offering that was.

Lest one think that I am presenting some form of “operatic relativism” in which interpretation trumps everything, let me stress that it is imperative, while making a role fit to one’s voice and temperament, to remain true to the music and to the character. That’s the main criticism that I have for the Adalgisa of Armenian mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan. Owner of a beautiful dark voice, and able to navigate Adalgisa’s minor technical challenges,  she however was severely taxed by the range of the role. Every time the line went up, the voice started to get unsteady and a hint of a wobble would creep in. Even more distressingly, in her duets with Norma, she omitted the high Cs. While this might have been a prudent choice for her, it did rob us of the beautiful symmetry between the two parts, and diminished the musical and dramatic impact of both duets.

Pollione was American tenor Russell Thomas. This is an “important” voice, full and with plenty of squillo. My only  quibble is that he seems to be able to sing only at a very loud volume: every time he attempted a mezza-voce, the sound would dry up to a breathy almost spoken whisper. Still he acquitted himself well of the coloratura in “Me protegge, me difende” and in general his was a very good performance.

Gustave Gimeno let the orchestra loose in the overture and the choral passages, but restrained it during more delicate singing passage,s allowing the voices to shine through. The production (which will travel to Madrid and Bilbao in the future) was a mixed bag: clearly Livermore spent a lot of time with the singers on how to express on stage their interpersonal relationships. Staged with a bit of Lord of the Ring feel, the set revolved around a huge tree stump that serves as the altar and the temple and that somewhat managed to create the right atmosphere.

I wish he had stopped there, but it almost looked like the director did not trust the music and the text to do their job. So he had to add a lot of “directorial gimmicks” to make the story more interesting. The forest is populated by some wild almost magical being (barely costumed, body painted dancers) who resuscitate dead people (at the beginning of the opera there is a lot of killing of Romans and Druids alike) and come in and out of the set with no apparent rhyme or reason (including running around during one of Devia’s scene). There is a not so clear subplot involving the older son of Norma and Pollione who keeps coming to the front of the stage showing us a dagger and who rejects his mothers loving embraces.

And most annoying of all, many projections, explaining us what was really going on. If Pollione talks of love being the God that drives him, we have a movie of a couple having sex. When Devia sings “Ah bello” Pollione’s face is projected on the back (as any other time either Norma or Adalgisa talk about him). Norma’s rage and Adalgisa’s torment are also shown on screen, with blow up close ups of the singers. This wasn’t just distracting, it was almost insulting to the audience and to the piece.

But the night belonged to Devia. As she approaches the end of her career (there is an interview today in Valencia’s daily where she states Norma is the last role she will learn—there go my hopes of a Trovatore Leonora) she continues to marvel and astound. Let’s hope that she will give us a few more years of singing of this class.

  • Will

    Why do they STILL insist on casting mezzos as Adalgisa instead of the light lyric voice for which Bellini wrote the role? Adalgisa is a young girl and the heavier, perhaps darker voice should be Norma’s, with Adalgisa sounding a decade or more younger.

    • Ilka Saro

      Is it possible that this would have been done in order to lessen potential conflicts between two soprano Prime, and then eventually became one of those odd expectations that was considered a performance standard?

      • Ilka Saro

        Whoops. should be “soprano Prime Donne”

      • Will

        Interesting question, Ilka, and one that would be worth investigating. I DO know that casting Adalgisa did become a conflict between two sopranos prime when Rudolph Bing offered Adalgisa to Victoria de los Angeles opposite Joan Sutherland’s Norma when he mounted a new production at the MET. De los Angeles refused to accept seconda donna status which I regret to this day as I thought they could have been sensational together. Of course, her rejection of the role set things up for Marilyn Horne and THAT was pretty spectacular, too.

  • meowiaclawas

    Now for the question ALL opera queens are waiting for: Did Devia hit the unwritten high D at the end of the first act trio? *squeal!*

  • antikitschychick

    Wonderfully descriptive review. Thank you Laura Amorosa. It really is astounding that at 67 she is taking on the most daunting of the major bel canto roles.

    Found a recording of the 1st act on Youtube:

    I agree with Will about Adalgisa although I don’t think the relative youthfulness or virility of the voice can be precisely measured or quantified in years; it really depends on the performer and their particular voice. Some female singers’ voices do mature with age but the maturity can be brought on by physical and hormonal changes in their bodies such as motherhood, not necessarily age. Look at Joyce for example. One could argue that her voice has gained a vocal amplitude and security over the years as she’s mastered her technique, but she sounds almost exactly as she did 10 or 15 years ago, so in that sense her voice hasn’t really ‘aged.’ The same can be said of Renee Fleming, Angela G…sure their voices might not be as agile and the high notes might not be as secure but the basic quality of the sound has remained the same for the most part.

    • Will

      THAT’S a 67 year old soprano in one of the toughest assignments out there? She sounds fantastic — the voice is easily produced, of a lovely color with the top firmly in hand, and she does some interesting ornamentation. More power to her!

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Can’t wait to hear a complete recording of Devia’s NORMA. Unless I missed something here, It’s very strange that there have not been the usual comments about a Domingo premiere -- in this case his Carlo in ERNANI. I have the recording of the prima, but no interest in playing it.

    • Camille

      How did it go, if you please, Maestro?

      • Tristan_und

        I thought he sounded fine but I was so distracted by how totally different he looked it was hard for me to tell. Either he’s lost a LOT of weight, had plastic surgery or the make-up artist was a genius.

        • DeepSouthSenior

          “Either he’s lost a LOT of weight, had plastic surgery or the make-up artist was a genius.” Can I pick just one of these for myself? At least my retirement followed the entertainer’s creed: “Always leave them wanting more.” (Ha!)

        • tiger1

          Close ups can be found on, including in a kimono. I think one can credit the make up artist -- on other pictures from around now Mr Domingo does not look particularly youthful…. And the costume which seems to suit him quite well.

          • DonCarloFanatic

            This is the reason women dye their hair instead of gracefully going grey. Whenever Domingo has had a part recently that called for his hair to be dark again, he has looked substantially younger.

            We also tend not to expect older men to have smooth, unlined faces despite expecting it in women. I was staring at poor Renee Fleming’s Opera News cover recently and thought: Bad plastic surgery made her mouth look like a ventriloquist’s dummy’s. Of course it could also be bad Photoshop.

          • Tristan_und

            After seeing the close-up from the NYTimes’ (very cranky) review, I think it’s mostly the beard making his face narrower and the ruff hiding his neck and chin.

            • manou

              I am off this instant ordering a ruff, growing a bushy beard (and dyeing my white hair a nice russet brown).

              Thanks for the tips!

  • DIVO ALERT: Costello canceled Traviata in Vienna. Saimur Pirgu sang instead.

    • Bill

      Actually Costello sang the first of the three performances in Vienna, a Moroccan born tenor the second, and Pirgu (who had the best reviews of the three) the third.

  • quoth the maven

    A beautiful and exciting evocation of Devia’s virtues. Thank you, Ms. Amorosa!

  • vilbastarda

    Thank you, Laura for the wonderful review!

    Devia, I feel, is an artist that ages like a fine wine, the older the better. It seems surprising at first to read that she works the role through a deep understanding of the text. She wasn’t this type of artist, at least not how I saw her. She always struck me as being musical in an instrumental kind of way, emphasizing all the nuances of a score purely musically. The text was always an afterthought in her case. At times she was frustrating for this exact reason, a gorgeous and very technical voice, with the understanding of the music limited to the notes on the staff.

    However, in the past years, she seemed to have developed a deeper rapport to the roles she is singing. If it makes sense, I would say that she matured as an artist. Could be that she is more secure of her value, and of her gifts, a security that comes to almost everybody with age. I saw her live at Carnegie Hall in Roberto Devereux last year, and she displayed a kind of assurance that allowed her to expand the role beyond the pure technical gimmicks. Even though it was a concert version of the opera, and she showed no interest in acting even minimally, she managed to convey the character’s complexities on a deeper level, a depth that originated from text exploration. Not to mention that the voice was quite exciting: big enough, robust, beautiful, and technically perfect. So yes, I see how your description of her as an artist that gives meaning to text fits here. She is definitely a very exciting artist that deserves to be followed closely, particularly that there are probably not unlimited number of years left in her career.

    And I agree with Will, it is time to cast Adalgisa as a soprano, as the role is intended.

    When looking at the picture at the top, is anybody else thinking “Star Trek”, or is it just me?

  • Camille

    I am very pleased to hear of Signora Devia’s further appearances as Norma and hope she will keep on, keeping on for as long as she may, if for no other reason than she is a walking, living, breathing master class in proper singing and a belcanto line. Ten times more worthwhile than the master classes being offered by many an aging soprano who no longer sings well and does her best to impart her faults to the young, incredulous, and trusting.

    Brava diva e sempre avanti!

    • uwsinnyc

      Devia is just one of a kind. There is no one who sings like her. I only wish she had a more substantial US career so those of us on this side of the pond could have heard her more frequently.

      I wonder if she’ll ever do a Carnegie Hall concert Norma?

  • Laura Amorosa

    Thanks everybody for the kind comments on my first parterre review.

    Two answers
    — no, Devia did not take the high D at the end of Act 1
    — In Bologna, Adalgisa was a lyric soprano (Carmela Remigio) and all reports said that it worked pretty well.

    • Camille

      That is interesting about Carmela Remigio as just a few days ago I noted she will be the Norma in the Kara Walker edition of Norma at La Fenice for the Biennale. That should be interesting….

      La Remigio sings a creditable Maria Stuarda, but other than that I am not familiar with her at all.