Cher Public

Occult following

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

  • PCally

    Compromised or not, I would have love to have seen Scotto as Norma.

    • JR

      I saw one of the later Met Scotto performances. In the first act she was absolutely dreadful, but somehow her second act was brilliant. I had experienced similar situations with Scotto in Lucia, where she ruined the first act, but rallied and was mesmerizing later. I still remember how she sang “Splendon!” in the mad scene.

      • Rick

        I have heard the recording of Scotto’s Norma, both from Philadelphia and from the Met. And I liked it. Of course, in Met the high notes are not all things of beauty -- but I kind of like the way that Ms Scotto sings, even when not traditionally beautiful or pretty.

        • I saw Philly (’78) and five in house the season she did it at the Met (she did a number on tour). First, the excerpt here is from the opening night where she was viciously booed by a claque before she opened her mouth. I know for a fact that it rattled her and she was fighting tears by “Ah! Bello a me ritorna”. The croaking she does is a result. The insistent booing infected the audience which turned against her, a good example of how a crowd can be manipulated although she really didn’t recover.

          She was best in Philly. It was a better size house for her and she was in fresher voice. She bought about ten years or so when she decided to move into a heavier rep in 1970 and she had sung very strenuous rep, a lot of it in the enormous Met. By 1979 that “second prime” was running out. The same thing happened to Tebaldi who when she underwent her “first fix” had a secure and huge “new voice” for about five years and then it began to run out on her (less successful “second fix” followed).

          In Philly Scotto had very little trouble, sounded good most of the time and offered a very thoughtful and moving reading. Some shortness of breath was the only marked issue and she coped with it well.

          By Sept ’81, her timbre had begun to fray and she had less control at the top. But she was really distraught at the booing the first night and sobbed a lot afterward. I think what got to her was that she hadn’t even been given a chance. The subsequent performances were better, and one in the early spring was much better although none were as secure as Philadelphia had been. She did it 14 times with the Met company.

          It’s fair to say she overreached especially given the size of the house. But my three experiences of Rad (of course I didn’t see or hear her this time out in Chicago) was that there was much large scale and very accomplished vocalizing, but no words and no intention. Scotto missed nothing but her singing was hit or miss. Still, the great Verrett, her predecessor, after a good showing in Boston, really wasn’t very good at the Met and had to cope with Obraztsova (!) as Adalgisa and Galvany (!!) had gotten one too. And poor Rita Hunter had done the role not so long before after a sensation in San Francisco but to derision and fat shaming in New York. That was a messy first night, and everybody in management had fled leaving Rita to throw herself a party in her hotel suite. She was a very great singer, equal to much but not to Norma at the Met.

          • PCally

            I’ve also heard there are recordings of earlier performances in Vienna and Houston which find her in excellent shape, though I haven’t been able to track down them down myself

          • steveac10

            I heard her Norma in an even bigger house than the Met (Northrup in Mpls) on tour that season. It wasn’t pretty, but much of it was thrilling to this little (at the time) college senior voice major. It was a lesson in how to succeed in singing something you shouldn’t have decided to sing. Beautifully shaped phrases and pianissimi that hung in the air of that barn of a house. Unfortunately she was saddled with a horror of an Eastern Bloc Adalgisa who literally croaked her way through everything above an F and the leather voiced William Johns as her Pollione.

      • Dan Patterson

        I saw Scotto sing Norma a few years earlier than her Met traversals, in Cincinnati, and she was truly splendid, in good voice throughout and incredibly moving. One of my favorite memories. I’m sorry NY got this too late.

    • Rudolf

      @ PCally
      Renata Scotto and Tatjana Troyanos “starred” in “Norma” in Vienna in 1980. It was a wretched affair of the “OMG! I want my money back!” kind. Both these esteemed singers were most disappointing, alas! Nice for eyes but cruel to the ears.

  • Camille

    I’m very happy to hear she is still doing this role up in style. Her turnaround, from that HD Il Trovatore to what she has developed into in the last performances of Norma and Roberto Devereux has been amazing to me and I laud her for her accomplishment and her hard work in development and evolution.

    And hey, parterriani—--How BAD was that Norma of La Scotissima’s and HAS ANYONE GOT A PIRATE? The point being: how bad COULD it have been, as piccola Renata was a supreme interpreter of Bellini, based upon hearing her Sonnabula and my favorite La Straniera, in both she is exemplary. Was she really that undersized? I’ve heard the commercial recording of the Norma (long ago now so I’d have to refresh my memory), and expected to hear all sorts of warts and wrinkles and remember being very pleasantly surprised.

    Was it all just a Callas Cabal, as in the Luisa Miller “Brava Maria Callas” screamer? I know that this role, Lady Macbeth, and certainly, Gioconda(!) were a mighty big stretch for the mighty petite diva, but come on, a Bellini singer is a Bellini singer. And that she was certainly was, in SPADES!

    • actfive

      It wasn’t that bad, although all reports were that her opening night Norma was pitchy/screamy. When I saw it, all the notes were there, but her high notes were extremely wiry and strained. But I’ll take Scotto any time…


        Not unlike her recording of the role which I still enjoy as long as you skip over ‘O bello a mi ritorna’.

      • Camille

        I see. Thanks. That wiry and screamy stuff was there a lot in the eighties, one just had to live with it. I remember listening to the broadcast of Francesca da Rimini and expecting it to happen and it really didn’t, and I was so relieved. For my part, I never liked her until I saw her, and only once, and I’ll never forget her for that Elisabetta.

        At least, piccola Renata was the real deal, autentica, no doubt about that, wiriness, screaminess and all. A mistress of so many fine points. One of the best things I’ve discovered her in was a Don Pasquale with Kraus, Rome 1965-66. Just wonderful. It was her ambition to express something a little beyond the -ina Fach which pressed havoc on her voice, but with her dramatic insight and instinct and her ability to point and phrase, well, I can’t say as I blame her for expanding her repertory past the blameless virgin victim territory, inasmuch as they are mighty boring especially after a certain age.

        Viva Renata, la più piccola e la più grande!!

    • I believe Scotto’s Met Norma used to be on YouTube but it seems to have been taken down (I just checked).

      As a fan of La Rad, I’m glad to hear of her success also. But I must make a confession. I think she’s a very accomplished Norma and probably sings the role as well as anyone in the world. And I agree that her acting has improved and she commands the stage confidently. But I’m also ready to hear someone else in the role.

      I hope McVicar gives her better direction than he did for Elisabetta. Her “cranky old lady” take on the role at the Met was twice as extreme as a similar take she did in Toronto. She’s very open to taking direction from conductors (thank goodness, no Benini) and directors, so I blame her over-the-top histrionics as Elisabetta on Sir David.

      • Camille

        Oh thanks for that. I thought it was probably thr director.

        Yes, I am ready for Miss Rebeka’s take on the part even if knowing her voice is a size smaller, she was dramatically viable as Mathilde and has a beautiful stage presence and demeanor.

        However, depending on how La Sondra sonds at the prima, I’ll most likely go at least once to hear her again. Her singing at the prima of Roberto Devereux was a tour de force and I am so truly, truly impressed at how she has evolved. It doesn’t happen an awful lot as they usually get stuck or locked into their routine and style, once established. When I compare that performance with one as Gutrune from the early 00’s which I’ve heard on Sirius, it’s hard to even think it is the same singer.

        What’s up with the ad for Norma? There’s a lot of wind going on in this Gong Show!

      • La Cieca
  • WindyCityOperaman

    I saw the second performance and it was remarkable, truly one of the best I’ve seen at the Lyric in a long time and that’s saying a lot. I notice a particular vocal ‘blip’ when Sondra scales her upper range down to pianissimo (anyone else notice that?) That said I think hearing it in the house was far better than the live WFMT broadcast. Lots to look forward to with her Normas as the Met.

  • Porgy Amor

    I’m always happy to see something new from you here, Henson. We are lucky to have you on the Windy City beat.

    This review is particularly useful to me. I just ordered the Blu-ray of this same production, with La Rad in Barcelona (plus Gubanova and Kunde). I’ve been digging out of a pile of new releases, and spent December watching Rusalka after Rusalka for that two-part behemoth, so I haven’t done much shopping lately.

    Alas, eleven years later, the voice has frayed significantly.

    Silvestrelli does go back a ways. He’s on the Muti Don Carlo (Monk/Charles V) with a bunch of people who are retired or no longer with us at all now (I believe only the Eboli, Luciana D’Intino, is still going in both senses). I don’t know his age, though, and he may have been pretty young in that.

  • chicagoing

    I have a ticket for Norma for tomorrow night, but curiously I have not been looking forward to it much. Perhaps, based on this review, that will set me up for a great evening. I do like to schedule as many performances as possible during the dark, cold January and February nights here so I am a bit vexed that the Chicago weather is supposed to be extremely mild this weekend.

  • DW

    I too thought the Sacred Cherry Picker was an eyesore and a bad piece of the production, but when Rads ascended the damn thing and sang the Cast diva from up there, the voice soared in the auditorium in a different way than it had when she delivered from the stage floor, and I was glad for it. As far as Scotto’s disastrous excursion at the Met, you can find a snippet here

    • Armerjacquino

      Yoncheva’s magnificent CG Norma (seriously, if Rad is even half as good as she was then this opera is in safe hands for a while to come) also featured a cherry-picker for ‘Casta Diva’. I guess we need someone to do a ‘L’Amico Fritz’ with druids.

    • Camille

      Thanks. I can only repeat the sentiments of the lady on the tape “oh, my god!”

      Well, frankly, I’ve heard worse and much WORSE! That cabaletta is a ballbreaker anyway.

    • Ramon Figueroa

      She sounds sick. The runs are smudged (which is not something you usually hear from Scotto) and the voice doesn’t have any thrust (which is something she always had, wiry, screamy notes and all). I hope the rest of the performance was more settled.