Cher Public

Text appeal

What makes Norma such a high-profile role in the soprano repertory? Like the druids in the opera, we the audience anxiously await her entrance, wonder how she will sing, ponder her ability, and condemn her if she does not deliver what we expected. As for the character, there is no forgiveness for a soprano who tackles this role; we all seem to have a picture in our heads of how the role should sound, should be sung, and should be acted. The ghosts of the great Normas of the past confirm and solidify our beliefs.  

A lot of this must have been on Mariella Devia’s mind as she pondered the end of her career and wondered if she should take on this pinnacle of belcanto. In an interview a few years ago, she even mentioned how it would be impossible for her to sing it at La Scala because of the “Callas widows”. The question for her must have been: Do I try to meet the expectations or chart my own path, in line with my own voice and dramatic temperament?

For those of us who have followed this wonderful singer’s career the answer was obvious and on display two years ago in Bologna when she finally debuted the role. And the pushback was swift: blogging opera queens in Italy (and some respected music critic as well) lashed at her for presenting a Norma “lite” devoid not only of dramatic fire and intensity, but also of the vocal weight required by the role.

Last week I got a chance to assess those criticisms first hand, at Devia’s second outing as Norma at the Palau Les Arts in Valencia in a new production directed by David Livermore. And as the lights in the wonderful Calatrava hall went down and I settled on my fourth row orchestra seat, I suddenly was aware of my own expectations, of my own doubts that Devia could pull this off, and of my own nervousness around a trip to Valencia explicitly made to hear her.

Devia makes the role her own. There is no doubt that the voice is a tad small for the part, and that her low register (never her strong suit) is the area of her voice that shows the most conspicuous signs of age-related wear (Devia will be 67 next month). For a “drammatico d’agilita’” role like Norma, these could be serious liabilities (and indeed the focus of much of the criticism of the 2013 performances), if it weren’t that musical intelligence and technical command can more than make up for it.

Devia’s approach to Norma starts from the text. Every word is measured and weighted, all in function of finding the perfect phrasing and the appropriate dramatic accents. If an artist has technique and total control of her voice, volume and heft are not the only way to express rage, desperation, and vengeance. So when Norma rages (like the trio at the end of Act 1) Devia uses her technique, the way to attack a note or a phrase, a way of bending the vocal line to accentuate a key word in the text to give us a memorable and truly terrifying Norma.

And then, there are the known Devia quantities: the pure, beautiful singing, the astounding legato, the amazing capacity to project her voice above the orchestra and the chorus, the ability to negotiate the most difficult coloratura passages with ease. So “Casta diva” is sung in a beautiful “fil di voce”, and magnificent breadth control, with Devia drawing the audience in, almost inviting them to join her on stage. The cabaletta “Ah bello a me ritorna” with a second stanza filled with ornate and fiendishly difficult variations.

A wonderful, harrowing, monologue opening of Act 2 found Devia once again relying on the music and the text to bare Norma’s soul to us, as she debates killing her own children. And then the crowing achievement, a death scene in which her elegant singing and her mastery of legato brought at least one audience member to tears.

A great artist charts his or her own course. On that account Devia showed us once again last night that she is a great artist. While remaining true to the music and the character, she offered us her own way to embody Norma, and what a great, magnificent offering that was.

Lest one think that I am presenting some form of “operatic relativism” in which interpretation trumps everything, let me stress that it is imperative, while making a role fit to one’s voice and temperament, to remain true to the music and to the character. That’s the main criticism that I have for the Adalgisa of Armenian mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan. Owner of a beautiful dark voice, and able to navigate Adalgisa’s minor technical challenges,  she however was severely taxed by the range of the role. Every time the line went up, the voice started to get unsteady and a hint of a wobble would creep in. Even more distressingly, in her duets with Norma, she omitted the high Cs. While this might have been a prudent choice for her, it did rob us of the beautiful symmetry between the two parts, and diminished the musical and dramatic impact of both duets.

Pollione was American tenor Russell Thomas. This is an “important” voice, full and with plenty of squillo. My only  quibble is that he seems to be able to sing only at a very loud volume: every time he attempted a mezza-voce, the sound would dry up to a breathy almost spoken whisper. Still he acquitted himself well of the coloratura in “Me protegge, me difende” and in general his was a very good performance.

Gustave Gimeno let the orchestra loose in the overture and the choral passages, but restrained it during more delicate singing passage,s allowing the voices to shine through. The production (which will travel to Madrid and Bilbao in the future) was a mixed bag: clearly Livermore spent a lot of time with the singers on how to express on stage their interpersonal relationships. Staged with a bit of Lord of the Ring feel, the set revolved around a huge tree stump that serves as the altar and the temple and that somewhat managed to create the right atmosphere.

I wish he had stopped there, but it almost looked like the director did not trust the music and the text to do their job. So he had to add a lot of “directorial gimmicks” to make the story more interesting. The forest is populated by some wild almost magical being (barely costumed, body painted dancers) who resuscitate dead people (at the beginning of the opera there is a lot of killing of Romans and Druids alike) and come in and out of the set with no apparent rhyme or reason (including running around during one of Devia’s scene). There is a not so clear subplot involving the older son of Norma and Pollione who keeps coming to the front of the stage showing us a dagger and who rejects his mothers loving embraces.

And most annoying of all, many projections, explaining us what was really going on. If Pollione talks of love being the God that drives him, we have a movie of a couple having sex. When Devia sings “Ah bello” Pollione’s face is projected on the back (as any other time either Norma or Adalgisa talk about him). Norma’s rage and Adalgisa’s torment are also shown on screen, with blow up close ups of the singers. This wasn’t just distracting, it was almost insulting to the audience and to the piece.

But the night belonged to Devia. As she approaches the end of her career (there is an interview today in Valencia’s daily where she states Norma is the last role she will learn—there go my hopes of a Trovatore Leonora) she continues to marvel and astound. Let’s hope that she will give us a few more years of singing of this class.