My first live Norma was in the early 80’s at the Met, during the spring run of Renata Scotto’s ill-fated turn at the role. It was a Tuesday night, if I recall, prior to the Saturday matinee that Scotto cancelled and Adelaide Negri took over. Scotto’s musicianship was her usual impressive standard, but the voice simply wouldn’t do what that great artist wanted it to do. Afterwards, I fell madly in love with the live 1955 La Scala recording, with Callas in fiery form and a great supporting cast and an audience in an absolute frenzy.
So I was extremely curious, maybe even wary, of attending Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Norma last Monday night, having heard some reports that Sondra Radvanovsky had some difficulties in her opening night performance in the title role. I need not have worried. Radvanovsky delivered a vocal and histrionic performance that should be the gold standard Norma for years, if not decades, to come. This well-travelled production by Kevin Newbury, “new to Chicago” via San Francisco, Toronto, and the Gran Teatre del LIceu, served as an excellent frame for some real “golden age” singing from the principals and chorus.
Newbury’s production, with its “Iron Age” grey walls featuring a giant wood and metal door operated by an on-stage pulley system, allowed for colorful effects in the “magical” forest behind the door. Jessica Jahn’s costumes suggested a downscale version of Game of Thrones, and were particularly unattractive for the chorus men and women. Her beautiful gold robes for Norma, however, were effective and the costume and wig were highly reminiscent of Daenerys Targaryan. The only annoying set piece in David Korins’ design was a cattle-cart like contraption on wheels that, alas, hearkened back to the annoying moving staircase in Newbury’s 2014 production of Anna Bolena at Lyric (also starring a stunning Radvanovsky).
I first encountered Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora in Lyric’s 2006 Il Trovatore, where I found her singing wonderful but her acting very poor, limited to lurching about and making faces. My goodness, how that has changed. I subsequently saw improvement in her Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, and much improvement in her Anna Bolena. But her Norma announces her full arrival as a “total package” singing actress. Every gesture was natural and completely convincing—she now moves with a dancer’s grace and agility. And she used her vocal instrument for an enormous variety of effects that were always appropriate, frequently stunning, including bringing full volume down to the slightest thread of a pianissimo, then seamlessly moving back to full volume.
“Casta diva” was spellbinding and haunting, followed by a bright and hopeful “A bello a me ritorno.” The soprano’s stamina was remarkable in this long and difficult sing, showing not the slightest sense of tiring from beginning to end. The voice is bigger, more flexible, and more capable of projecting genuine emotion that it’s ever been before. When she practically galloped on stage for her curtain call, almost expressing “I could go another hour!”, the audience responded with a tumultuous ovation.
Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was a finely sung Adalgisa, and blended beautifully with Radvanovsky in the signature “Mira, o Norma” duet, a feast of precise and moving phrasing from both women. Ms. DeShong was somewhat hampered by her matronly costume and wig, making her appear older than Norma. She occasionally seemed to be pushing for volume, perhaps working too hard to match her duet partner. But all in all, it was a convincing and moving performance. Tenor Russell Thomas made an impressive Lyric debut, singing Pollione with ardent fervor and a powerful sound, hampered only by his rather stiff demeanor. Thomas’ best moments were in the final act, when he softened and made clear his love for Norma.
I first heard bass Andrea Silvestrelli in that same 2006 Trovatore where I first heard Radvanovsky, and at the time I thought him an ideal Ferrando. Alas, eleven years later, the voice has frayed significantly. His gravelly bass could always be heard above the orchestra, but not always to pleasant effect. The weakest link in the cast was Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clothilde, her voice clearly three times smaller than that of all the other principals.
The Lyric Opera orchestra responded beautifully to the detailed and nuanced conducting of Riccardo Frizza, bringing much life to the orchestration of Bellini, which can often sound rather simple and “minty.” Not here, where the music seemed complex and moving under Frizza’s baton. The Lyric Opera Chorus under Michael Black was excellent, as always, providing precise diction and and a clear and bright sound.
I was also impressed with the detail in the Druid clothes and manner, with interesting face and arm tattoos, as well as a distinctive “greeting” of using two fingers to touch the head, the arm, and the heart in expressing solidarity and loyalty.
Altogether, it was a grand evening of singing, bringing honor to this difficult bel canto masterpiece.
Photo: Andrew Cioffi