Mitigated Gaul

A DVD/Blu-ray from C-Major preserves Kevin Newbury‘s familiar production of Bellini’s Norma with its most frequent leading lady, the American Sondra Radvanovsky

Ms. Radvanovsky, perhaps the preeminent Norma of the present day, is scheduled to open the 2017-18 Metropolitan Opera season in a new production by David McVicar, a plum that came to her when a colleague had second thoughts about taking up the role. The Blu-ray thus serves as a coming attraction, an opportunity to gauge the soprano’s progress in a role she first sang in 2011, and performed seven times at the Met in 2013.

Mr. Newbury’s production is shared by several houses and was reviewed on parterre box at the time of its San Francisco world premiere (September 2014) and subsequently in its Chicago presentation (February 2017), both times with Ms. Radvanovsky. Between these, the soprano and the production made a stop in Toronto. The video release, beautifully filmed by Jean-Pierre Loisil, comes from performances at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, February 2015.

The expectations we bring to a production or a performance can shape our reactions, and while I will not spend time here reviewing other reviews, the published commentary on Mr. Newbury’s work has been as “all over the map,” figuratively speaking, as the production has been in the literal sense. Mr. Newbury has acknowledged a debt to the television series Game of Thrones in the look of his Norma, which breaks with tradition while maintaining friendly relations with it. It evokes a primitive society without fixing a specific time or place.

The entire opera takes place in an imposing wood-and-iron shed or barn (set design by David Korins) that is both a meeting hall and Norma’s home. Armaments hang on the interior walls, and massive skeletal steer heads are mounted high up on either side. The sacred tree, freshly cut in the opera’s opening moments, is hoisted in the air to hang horizontally. The shed’s door occasionally is opened, affording us glimpses of the world beyond this stronghold, a grove with moonlit birches. A cart is wheeled in and out from time to time, and it serves as a platform for characters to mount.

Jessica Jahn‘s costumes are intentionally drab and muted for everyone except Norma, who gets two glamorous and flattering gowns in a more modern cut, one gold and one peach. The Druid characters have tribal tattoos, including dotted foreheads and faces, and the women wear thickly braided hair. Ms. Radvanovsky’s platinum wig, seen in photos from other venues and on the Blu-ray’s cover, did not make the trip to Barcelona.

Mr. Newbury, whose work was revived by R. B. Schlather for the Barcelona performances, shows a good feel for ceremony and ritual, and he knows that Norma is largely a drama of fine nuance within long stretches of stillness. He does not approach this story as though there is anything risible about it. He takes it seriously and does not risk conceptual baggage, under which this opera has sunk in the past.

The director and his design team give Bellini’s music and Romani’s words a plausible frame and leave the rest of the work to their musical colleagues. The production is neither innovative nor, in the last analysis, especially memorable, but there are arresting tableaux within which a great performance can take place. So far, so good.

There was a time when I did not believe that Ms. Radvanovsky’s voice, one of impressive size and thrust, recorded well. I have had to reconsider that view in recent years. I now believe she is one of those singers, like many before her, who must work hard to keep some things under control. Microphones can highlight imperfections of emission and pitch on a night when she is battling with the voice, but she seems to have worked through a difficult patch at the start of this decade.

Her Barcelona Norma is well recorded and admirably sung. A few shrill fortes on high notwithstanding, this is the good side of the soprano, meaning one hears the tone itself more than the process by which the tone is being produced and sustained. Consequently, one can relax into Ms. Radvanovsky’s way of guiding a line, rather than tensing up at an overload of juddering.

Ms. Radvanovsky brings cutting power to recitative, and there are many blandishing effects with soft highs, one example being the phrase “come del primo amore ai dì felici” as Norma reflects with misplaced optimism on Pollione’s return. The soprano by now has taken a difficult role’s measure, and she sings the arias and duets with breadth and at least an illusion of ease. It is a confident performance. We are never hearing a singer just hanging on, but one with resources to spare.

I do wish for clearer enunciation and the finer rhythmic points that come with it. Ms. Radvanovsky does not make much of words. Italian vowels can be odd or compromised, consonants indistinct. I also believe, and have heard demonstrated, that there is a wider palette of emotional expression in this character than one appreciates in the present performance.

Ms. Radvanovsky seems to be playing a Norma who is younger than her own 45 years at the time, with the anxious and hopeful sides better served than the volatile and commanding ones. It is a workable view, but over this long opera, it is hard to avoid an impression of monotony.

What is frustrating is that Ms. Radvanovsky pays close attention to dynamics, has the means to achieve fine gradations with them, and certainly shows that both the forceful and the florid demands of Bellini’s music are within her skill set. The role is in her throat, and if her Norma never acquires the coloring that would take it from a commendable assumption (“better than most of what we get”) to a great one for the pantheon, it will be a failing of imagination or temperament rather than one of technique or equipment.

The right Adalgisa may have helped pick the slack, and Ms. Radvanovsky has partnered with some good Adalgisas on this production’s tour. Unfortunately, whatever qualities the Moscow-born mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova may bring to operas of the Russian and German repertoire, she has a curious tendency to disappear in (rather than “into”) Italian roles.

Here, she gives the same sort of mousy needlepoint performance that she gave as Giovanna Seymour at the Met. The translation of “O ciel” is not, in fact, “Darn,” but one would think it so. Neither in sound nor in deportment does the mezzo suggest a younger rival to Norma, and the character’s scenes with both Norma and Pollione, though not badly sung, are notable dips in voltage.

A response to Raymond Aceto‘s Oroveso is may depend on whether a listener sees the character as a fourth principal or a big character part. The bass is better in his shorter interjections than in his extended pronouncements, with both solos sounding loose and underpowered.

The most satisfying performance comes from the Pollione, veteran Gregory Kunde, who was days away from his 61st birthday at the time. This is some of the best singing I have heard from the American tenor’s present Indian summer. He has the clearest words of the principals, and also the most stylistic assurance. He knows Bellini’s music well, and he knows the best ways to apply his voice in its present estate to that music’s demands. If he cannot make a full and fascinating character of the Roman proconsul loved by the two priestesses, it must be admitted that Bellini and Romani made that a tall order.

Mr. Kunde has the wisdom to take his cue from the music, and to this he brings power, stamina, masculine heat, and generosity. “Generosity” in performance is something different from eagerness to please, something rarer and grander. In this Norma we see both qualities up close, and the contrast is telling.

Renato Palumbo‘s edition includes second verses of cabalettas, and the conductor encourages embellishment of these, from both Mr. Kunde and Ms. Radvanovsky. Maestro Palumbo’s is a measured account that can become downright poky in recitatives. For the most part, he does not have the right singers to fill all the space he gives them, but he steers them well in their solos. The orchestra gives an adequate, unspectacular reading, with some distressed sounds from the principal trumpet and patches of sour tuning in the low strings. The choral work is rather better.

I should report that my ambivalence is at odds with the ovations throughout. It is apparent that most of the audience deemed this a great night (or great nights, assuming a composite) at the Liceu. Some performances “bottle” better than others, and it is possible that some you-are-there excitement from these voices as they sounded in the auditorium was lost on the video recording.

My impression was of a Norma with a few laudable things, and not much overtly wrong, but my patience was tested on two viewings. The Blu-ray’s running time of 176 minutes seemed to pass slowly. A serious mood is set for a scene, and that mood is sustained rather than developed. The subtitles tell us more of shifts in tone than the performers do. Time after time, interest sags and we just trudge along.

There are things going on in this opera between the notes, and amid the notes, not captured; the abused but pertinent word “melodrama” has not been considered. When near the end Norma sings “Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdesti,” it is strangely rhetorical, unearned. I felt I had been told of her grandeur without its having been conveyed in the nearly three hours leading up.

Certainly, everyone involved appears to have approached Bellini’s opera with respect. The director respected it. The conductor respected it. The singers respected it. We too, watching this, can pay our respects. We can draw close, but not too close—not for fear of being burned, but because a respectful distance is what one is expected to maintain. “They really did a good job with Norma. She looks so natural.”