Cher Public

The rite stuff

Remember that time you went to the opera and the entire evening was perfection? Yeah, me neither: you get so close but there’s always something that detracts from total glory. My remembrances of LA Opera’s production of Bellini’s Norma will have no such detractions since the flaws in the performance where so minor compared to the whole I can easily dismiss them. 

Music Director James Conlon took his place at the podium and proceeded to set the LA Opera Orchestra on fire with a reading of Bellini’s Sinfonia powerful in volume and passionate of purpose with brilliant string articulation and horns that were spot on from the onset. Then the curtain rose on the courtyard of a commune in Santa Fe where the residents share a little herb garden (I know). My tiny rush of disappointment was quickly extinguished when Morris Robinson strode on stage as Oroveso accompanied by the men of the chorus. He then blew a hole clean through his opening aria.

I won’t lie, it did take Mr. Robinson a few moments to “find the pocket,” four or five lines of accompanied recitative. But from then on, and for the rest of the evening, he poured forth the kind of legato-heavy, sepulchral sound that you generally get to hear in this role only on studio recordings.

Russell Thomas as Pollione took the stage next and even in the recitative you could tell this is an important voice. The tone was burnished but with real squillo ring on top and excellent breath control He’s also not afraid to sing mezza voce, quivering with delicious ardor in the romantic passages. His tread was cautious in the opening aria but which tenor’s is not? Once past that initial hurdle it was full out bull canto ‘till the finale.

This was my first opportunity to hear Angela Meade (Norma) in actual life, not just in Met broadcasts and the Richard Tucker gala on PBS. In person her voice has a youthful beauty and the bottom is unusually rich. After a seriously considered “Sediziose voc”’ filled with contrast and intent she launched into her party piece “Casta diva,” slowing Conlon’s already considered tempo down from the prelude. The notes soared into the auditorium like pearls on a string, with a legato line so secure. Even and the little fiorature between the verses were fully voiced.

Scale work was scruplous and, although no one would mistake Ms. Meade for a native Italian, her diction was clear and correct. The ovation in the theatre was thunderous. She attempted only only one verse of “Ah bello a me ritorna,” but I forgive her. There is an enormous difference between someone who can manage the role of Norma and someone who was born to sing it.  Ms. Meade most assuredly falls into the later category and it will be a pleasure to hear her continuing artistic growth in the part.

Then Jamie Barton as Adalgisa strode into the sacra selva and I was racking my brain to to recall the last time I wanted to use the word “glowing” to describe a voice. Perhaps she isn’t entirely comfortable with the very highest notes of this role but on that point she’s also in good company. She does make a strong case for a mezzo Adalgisa especially beside a voice as bright as Ms. Meade’s.

Ms. Barton and Mr. Thomas made short and impassioned work of their duet and we were headed straight for the concertato finale of Act II. It was some of the most glorious singing I’ve ever heard, though I did have a tiny pang of dismay when all three dropped out at in the little stretta right before the finale to set themselves up for their respective high notes. But I forgive them.

I’m familiar with the work of the director Anne Bogart, because SITI Company, which she helped found, has staged some of the greek tragedies at the Getty Villa here and she’s directed. I’ve enjoyed both her takes on The Persians by Aeschylus and a stunning production of The Trojan Women adapted from Euripides. Although she’s adept at bringing modern life to a classical format it becomes a whole other set of challenges when you have people singing introspective music about their emotions.

She did a creditable job in trying to fill some of Bellini’s endless preludes and postludes with action and adding some dramatic momentum. She even gave the singers an excuse to linger on the stage so they could enjoy some well-deserved applause. “Mira, o Norma’ developed into a group hug with the kids (which worked) and they returned, very potently, for the finale ultimo.  Robinson’s reactions here were especially compelling.

The costumes for the chorus and most of the principals were kind of timeless, flowing, garb with lots of textured fabrics. Thomas’s Pollione was swagged out in a leather duster while the ladies struggled with dresses and accessories that made them look like they’d just returned  from a 1980’s hair band fanfest. The unit set by Neil Patel offered a limited number of playing spaces but did serve to provide magnificent acoustic reinforcement since its floor and sides were predominantly wood.

Maestro Conlon’s gifts as an accompanist were absolute here; you would have never known that this was his first Norma. The work of the chorus, which can quickly dwindle to tedium in bel canto for the audience, was especially alert and dynamically varied.  Even the offstage banda was handled well and excellent coordination with the pit. As to the edition we did have a few cuts including a section of Norma’s interrogation of Pollione, removing the bulk of his florid singing. We did get quite a few extra measures of orchestral music in the finale which I’d heard before only on the live EMI recording with Riccardo Muti.

Two performances remain and I have only this to say:  “Ite sul colle, O Druidi!”

Photos: Ken Howard

  • Feldmarschallin

    Heinz Fricke has died. Don’t know how much he is known around here but for those who might be interested.

  • Countervail

    Who cast this? Fernando Botero?

    • Gualtier M

      • Gualtier M

        Marietta Alboni interpolated this translated into Italian into her performances as Adalgisa as a cabaletta to the Adalgisa/Pollione duet.

        I am also going to quote a commenter on Facebook and say that it applies equally to opera: “Rock was way better when they let ugly people sing”.

    • Milady DeWinter

      But funny.
      Shame on me.

  • Countervail

    LA Opera’s next production of Carmen.

  • Countervail
  • Thanks for your review, Patrick! We had Russell Thomas up here (in Toronto) a couple of years ago as Hoffman. I had a flu and left at the start of the Giulietta act so I don’t remember all that much. But I do remember finding his to be a quality instrument. He’s back this season as Don José.

  • operajunky

    I’ve come to the conclusion that Meade must have a voice that plays better in the house than it does on telecasts and radio, where her voice comes across as hollow and fluttery with a huge tendency to drift sharp.

  • Thanks for your account. I shall certainly be eager to make the acquaintance of Russell Thomas who, at the Met’s usual rate of acquisition, should be debuting here in about twelve years. As Parpignol.

    My problem with Meade, from her earliest appearances (I was at her stage debut in Ernani), is that she has a warm lower voice, as you said, and lovely high notes, but the two do not seem to connect at any point. They hardly seem to have met, or indeed to have studied with the same teacher. This is a real problem with bel canto roles, where evenness is the key, and Meade does not seem even aware that it’s a problem. So I’ve put her on my “only if I really want to hear the opera” list, not my “necessary” list. Barton is, of course, a very different story. Robinson always seems to lack an assurance of depth for me, so I remain dubious about him, too.

    I don’t I’ve ever seen a staging of Norma that was even half-decent. No one seems able to imagine what her living-quarters look like, and they always set the opening and closing scenes in something like Stonehenge, which Druids had nothing to do with. But if they were handsome, I could forgive much.

    • Hippolyte

      Russell Thomas made his Met debut in March 2005 and according the archives has sung a total of 56 performances there including Foresto in Attila, Tamino, Mozart’s Tito and Andres in Wozzeck. I believe he’s scheduled to return there next season. He also sang the Verdi Requiem with the NY Philharmonic last season.

      • quoth the maven

        Thomas’s Foresto was quite fine, beautifully supported by Muti.

    • la vociaccia

      Russell Thomas was a member of the Met young artist program and, as Hippolyte mentioned, has appeared there often and as recently as March 2014 as Andres in Wozzeck.

      Google is your friend.

  • fletcher

    It really was a tremendous performance. I thought Russell Thomas started a bit flat but he quickly warmed up; by the end he was my favorite thing about the show, and that includes a resplendent Jamie Barton. Such great voices, all in peak form. It’s a real shame that the production was such a snooze; very static, lots of unmoving choristers facing the audience.

  • grimoaldo

    Russell Thomas! Hooray! Another of the fabulous singers I came to know through Washington Concert Opera, oh he was soooooooooooo great in I masnadieri in 2013. I would luuuurve to hear him again in a leading role.
    Angela Meade did Norma at Washington National Opera a couple of seasons ago, she was very good, I enjoyed her performance without being totally knocked off my feel. That was also the only time I have ever heard Dolora Zajick live, I was very glad to finally see her.
    One of the things I enjoyed the most about that show was the wonderful opening chorus and then the off stage banda, I am a total sucker for operas with bandas in them, what low taste I must have.

    • Cicciabella

      Low taste? Don’t be hard on yourself, grim. Even Berg uses a banda.

  • zinka


    When someone like myself reaches his Gotterdamerung (“Starke Scheisse” in my case,) he thinks back to all the contributions he has bored you with over the years. A very few people say I tend to occasionally repeat myself, but we basically know that this is as rare as Domingo’s recordings.
    Here is one of my earlier posts, of course “new” in that I never remember what B.S. I once posted:

    “What to diplomatically tell a singer-friend backstage even if he/she sucks!”

    1. “What a night.”
    2. “Did you hear that audience reaction?”
    3. Are you singing this next season?”
    4. “You didn’t even need the prompter.”
    5. You never seem nervous.”
    6. “Nice you got a lot of flowers.”
    7. “Any new cd’s coming out?”
    8. “Glad I had a great seat.”

    Of course singers can spot a phony who says, “ were fabulous!” I always like when a singer says something like, “I appreciate your telling me how I was, because you have seen the best!” (If I was not a fake.)

    I once told Ermanno Mauro how I loved his last Boheme cries of “Mimi,” and he said, “I appreciate that more than you telling me about my high “C.”

    However, someday I might get up the Pollioni to tell it like it REALLY WAS:

    1. ” Did you think the word “cover” means someone waiting in the wings?”
    2. ” I really loved the way I heard all four voices in one phrase.”
    3. I have great equipment and played it over the phone for Kurt Baum, and he said, “Und you thought I vas bad????”
    4. ” I didn’t bring enough Dramamine for that wobble.” (I was close with Delia Rigal,but had to LIE)
    5.” This was PUCCINI…not Schoenberg!”
    6.” You really missed your proper “fach.” You should sign up for Lillas Pastia, L’Attavanti, Nina Micheltorena, or Morold.” (depending on gender).”
    7. ” Was Gelb on LSD when he hired you?”
    8. “Who cares if you slept with the entire audition crew…..”

    Aren’t you glad I re-posted this??????? (Actually, it is 99% new.) CH

    • mjmacmtenor

      My favorite line -- “you should have been out front”. (Better then than on the stage)!