Cher Public

“Norma,” bis

Sir David McVicar’s inept and dreary new production of Bellini’s Norma proved to be more satisfying than it had been on opening night when it returned to the Met Friday evening thanks to its new leading ladies Angela Meade and Jamie Barton.

If they might be considered less “starry” than their predecessors Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato both Meade and Barton struck me as more comfortably cast as the beset heroine and her nemesis-turned-boon-companion. While an impressive achievement, Radvanovsky’s Norma sometimes struck me as an amalgam of self-consciously calculated effects. Her ambition and hard work have resulted in some satisfying bel canto portrayals recently but one is unusually aware of the effort involved rather than being comforted by a diva’s effortless command of the style.

Perhaps Meade did not surmount every obstacle in the awesome minefield of vocal and dramatic demands required to be the ideal Norma–but then how many others have? She did however always sound like she belonged in the role. Throughout the evening she was more in command than she had been four years ago when she sang her first Norma at the Met once again succeeding Radvanovsky.

She ably negotiated the demanding arc from an authoritative “Sedisioze voci” to a finely spun “Casta diva” (this was after all the aria that won her lots of competitions and thousands of dollars) and finally to a yearning, mildly decorated “Ah bello a me ritorna.” All without much of the distracting stage business McVicar cooked up for her predecessor.

Once past those daunting hurdles she more and more came into her own. Dreamy reminiscences of falling on love with Pollione turned into searing rage when he was revealed as Adalgisa’s seducer. The explosive coloratura of “Oh non tremare” singed as did the high D that ended the act. Meade’s weaknesses as an actress kept her agonized monologue where she struggled with the urge to kill her children from making its full effect but yet the aching long lines of “Teneri figli” were beautifully done.

Stamina wasn’t a problem; indeed by the finale she sounded as if she could have gone another act. Perhaps she didn’t quite convince in the final scene where Bellini and Romani pave an impossibly truncated evolution from hope to vengeance to renunciation and acceptance, but Meade raged effectively at Pollione’s intransigence and capped their duet with a stinging high E-flat. She then floated a stabbing “Qual cor tradisti” and “Deh! Non volerli vittime.”

I was surprised to discover that in the past decade I’d heard Meade so often–eleven roles by Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi, in addition to Bellini. She can be an uneven singer and she has sometimes been accused of relying on “trick” pianissimi that sound unrelated to the rest of the voice but on Friday for the most part they sounded fully integrated into the line.

She fearlessly dug into chest voice in the all-important recitatives, a marked difference from Radvanovsky’s more gingerly approach. Loud high notes have taken on an increased shrill glare recently and the full-on intensity of her interpretation at times risked turning Norma into an unsympathetic termagant. But all in all this was a satisfying performance of an absolute beast of a role.

Although many hailed DiDonato as Adalgisa, I found her vocally overparted and the quivering neurasthenic interpretation cooked up with McVicar nearly unwatchable. Happily Barton wasn’t required to be as relentlessly neurotic as DiDonato nor did she have to wear that ridiculous potato-sack costume in the first act. From the first lines of her entrance prayer Barton boldly gave notice that this was going to be an old-school, gratifyingly big-voiced Adalgisa.

Like Meade she too had improved greatly on her promising role debut at the Met four years ago. While the opulent richness of Barton’s instrument again stunned, it was the quieter moments that were truly special. During her rapt verse responding to Pollione’s “Vieni a Roma” she conveyed a remarkable erotic intoxication that went far in explaining the virgin priestess’s infatuation with the brutish consul.

There was little doubt what was she was looking forward to in “Roma” and not just because Barton was born in Rome—Georgia! And the two strophes at the beginning of the first Norma-Adalgisa duet were sublime, suffused with the heady limerence of first infatuation.

Her voice and Meade’s blended together well perhaps the benefit of having done Bellini together before—Norma previously at the Met and in Los Angeles and Beatrice di Tenda at Carnegie Hall. Yet the faster music didn’t come easily to Barton nor some of the high notes: it initially seemed that she like DiDonato might duck the high C in the first duet.

Barton didn’t but it landed horribly flat and other forte highs could sound stressed. I wondered if perhaps her recent preoccupation with Verdi and Wagner had made bel canto roles less suitable but a broadcast of her recent Léonor in La Favorite from Madrid opposite Javier Camarena demonstrated that she is still very much a mistress of that repertoire. Perhaps Friday night she was just not at her best.

Neither lady was helped by the often downright dumb production which came across as even more leaden and unimaginative than it had ten weeks ago. It’s so unadventurous and predictable that I could imagine Zinka Milanov strolling into a rehearsal and feeling right at home. I’m sure that blunt diva though wouldn’t have been happy with McVicar’s idiotic staging of “Mira o Norma” as a five-on-a-bed: while Norma and Adalgisa pour out their hearts, Clotilde and the two kids snuggle on the same big Tempur-Pedic.

McVicar’s clunky blocking of the big trio during which Norma lights candles at the ersatz-altar and Pollione ends up sitting on the big bed brought to mind a delicious sequence in a film I recently saw. In Greta Gerwig’s luminous Lady Bird a bunch of high schoolers are putting on a production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. The kindly priest who has been directing has a breakdown and is replaced by the coach whose staging “concepts” are conveyed to his performers as football plays on a chalkboard.

Joseph Calleja returned as Pollione and an announcement was made that he was suffering from a cold. Except for dropping the high C in his aria and muffing the end of his cabaletta he actually sounded better than he had on opening night. His Pollione is still an awful brute but his ringing confident singing throughout was a joy. Matthew Rose remained a firm and vigorous Oroveso who unfortunately still had to put up with those juiced-up Game of Thrones wannabes running amok and ruining the final scene with their gyrations and risible pyre-building.

Carlo Rizzi’s taut and stylish conducting was one of the highlights of the production’s premiere; Joseph Colaneri took over on Friday night and had his hands full keeping his on-stage and off-stage forces together. Some of the more banal ceremonial pages of Bellini’s score sagged and the dramatic tension lapsed here and there. He was considerate of his singers, at times perhaps too much so. But the orchestra played well and the chorus sounded particularly brazen during the hyped-up “Guerra” chorus.

Four performances remain, the final one a Saturday afternoon broadcast on December 16. Radio audiences worldwide will then have the chance to discern how Meade & Barton figure in the pantheon of Norma-Adalgisa pairings in recent Met history.