Cher Public

The rite stuff

Remember that time you went to the opera and the entire evening was perfection? Yeah, me neither: you get so close but there’s always something that detracts from total glory. My remembrances of LA Opera’s production of Bellini’s Norma will have no such detractions since the flaws in the performance where so minor compared to the whole I can easily dismiss them. 

Music Director James Conlon took his place at the podium and proceeded to set the LA Opera Orchestra on fire with a reading of Bellini’s Sinfonia powerful in volume and passionate of purpose with brilliant string articulation and horns that were spot on from the onset. Then the curtain rose on the courtyard of a commune in Santa Fe where the residents share a little herb garden (I know). My tiny rush of disappointment was quickly extinguished when Morris Robinson strode on stage as Oroveso accompanied by the men of the chorus. He then blew a hole clean through his opening aria.

I won’t lie, it did take Mr. Robinson a few moments to “find the pocket,” four or five lines of accompanied recitative. But from then on, and for the rest of the evening, he poured forth the kind of legato-heavy, sepulchral sound that you generally get to hear in this role only on studio recordings.

Russell Thomas as Pollione took the stage next and even in the recitative you could tell this is an important voice. The tone was burnished but with real squillo ring on top and excellent breath control He’s also not afraid to sing mezza voce, quivering with delicious ardor in the romantic passages. His tread was cautious in the opening aria but which tenor’s is not? Once past that initial hurdle it was full out bull canto ‘till the finale.

This was my first opportunity to hear Angela Meade (Norma) in actual life, not just in Met broadcasts and the Richard Tucker gala on PBS. In person her voice has a youthful beauty and the bottom is unusually rich. After a seriously considered “Sediziose voc”’ filled with contrast and intent she launched into her party piece “Casta diva,” slowing Conlon’s already considered tempo down from the prelude. The notes soared into the auditorium like pearls on a string, with a legato line so secure. Even and the little fiorature between the verses were fully voiced.

Scale work was scruplous and, although no one would mistake Ms. Meade for a native Italian, her diction was clear and correct. The ovation in the theatre was thunderous. She attempted only only one verse of “Ah bello a me ritorna,” but I forgive her. There is an enormous difference between someone who can manage the role of Norma and someone who was born to sing it.  Ms. Meade most assuredly falls into the later category and it will be a pleasure to hear her continuing artistic growth in the part.

Then Jamie Barton as Adalgisa strode into the sacra selva and I was racking my brain to to recall the last time I wanted to use the word “glowing” to describe a voice. Perhaps she isn’t entirely comfortable with the very highest notes of this role but on that point she’s also in good company. She does make a strong case for a mezzo Adalgisa especially beside a voice as bright as Ms. Meade’s.

Ms. Barton and Mr. Thomas made short and impassioned work of their duet and we were headed straight for the concertato finale of Act II. It was some of the most glorious singing I’ve ever heard, though I did have a tiny pang of dismay when all three dropped out at in the little stretta right before the finale to set themselves up for their respective high notes. But I forgive them.

I’m familiar with the work of the director Anne Bogart, because SITI Company, which she helped found, has staged some of the greek tragedies at the Getty Villa here and she’s directed. I’ve enjoyed both her takes on The Persians by Aeschylus and a stunning production of The Trojan Women adapted from Euripides. Although she’s adept at bringing modern life to a classical format it becomes a whole other set of challenges when you have people singing introspective music about their emotions.

She did a creditable job in trying to fill some of Bellini’s endless preludes and postludes with action and adding some dramatic momentum. She even gave the singers an excuse to linger on the stage so they could enjoy some well-deserved applause. “Mira, o Norma’ developed into a group hug with the kids (which worked) and they returned, very potently, for the finale ultimo.  Robinson’s reactions here were especially compelling.

The costumes for the chorus and most of the principals were kind of timeless, flowing, garb with lots of textured fabrics. Thomas’s Pollione was swagged out in a leather duster while the ladies struggled with dresses and accessories that made them look like they’d just returned  from a 1980’s hair band fanfest. The unit set by Neil Patel offered a limited number of playing spaces but did serve to provide magnificent acoustic reinforcement since its floor and sides were predominantly wood.

Maestro Conlon’s gifts as an accompanist were absolute here; you would have never known that this was his first Norma. The work of the chorus, which can quickly dwindle to tedium in bel canto for the audience, was especially alert and dynamically varied.  Even the offstage banda was handled well and excellent coordination with the pit. As to the edition we did have a few cuts including a section of Norma’s interrogation of Pollione, removing the bulk of his florid singing. We did get quite a few extra measures of orchestral music in the finale which I’d heard before only on the live EMI recording with Riccardo Muti.

Two performances remain and I have only this to say:  “Ite sul colle, O Druidi!”

Photos: Ken Howard