Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Norma Goes to Texas

Bellini’s Norma
The Dallas Opera
April 21, 2017

A new production of Norma hits Dallas
Photo credit: Karen Almond/Dallas Opera
So what do you do when business brings you to Dallas? Check out what’s on at the local opera house, of course. If you’re in luck they may just be showing the season premiere of a new Norma production with Met Opera-caliber singers. We can never get enough of the rarely performed Bellini masterpiece, so we ran to secure our tickets months in advance. Sadly, it turns out that we could have waited until the last minute because the opera house was only slightly more than half full. I could not believe it – opening night of a new production of NORMA, with a top-notch cast, in an awesome, sleek modern theater – and it’s not sold out?!? What’s wrong with people in Dallas?!?

The interior of the house on opening night
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
But, that’s another story. On to the Norma production… In the title role, South African soprano Elza van den Heever is a singer with whom we are more than familiar. In fact, by now the figure she cuts on stage is almost synonymous with Maria Stuarda’s Elisabetta, whom she has sung with uncanny results several times at the Met over the last few years. All things considered, since this was after all a role debut for her, van den Heever was just passable as Norma. Granted, the fact that she even tackled the role speaks volumes of her ability as a singer since this is one of the most challenging soprano roles ever written. 

To kill the children, or not to kill the children, that is the question
Photo credit: Karen Almond/Dallas Opera
Van den Heever was technically proficient but didn’t allow herself to fully flex her soprano assoluta muscles and, most importantly, she did not seem to truly unleash the whole, complex emotional charge of her character, except maybe in her final duet with Pollione. Her soprano came out often too thin and metallic, almost as though she were holding back or over-thinking each phrase, so much so that she did not even utter the first syllable of Casta diva. When it comes to a Norma, I’m really looking for a whole range of emotions that include keeping her soul under fierce control but also letting it all go in forceful outpourings of bel canto hellfire and brimstone. She’s got to get angry and be tender, unleash her fury and show her love, be hurt and heroic and unveil her vulnerability.

Norma consoles her bosom buddy
Photo credit: Karen Almond
One thing is for sure, it was an emotional performance for her at the curtain call (when she cried copiously) but during the show itself she was more contained even at key “unleash the inner beast” moments than is permissible for an extraordinary Norma to be. Maybe it was opening night jitters though, because this singer is capable of delivering emotional thunderstorms at the Met, which is a much bigger and potentially more intimidating house. She did when we saw her as Donna Anna a couple of years ago and even most recently in Elettra’s mad scene in the finale of Idomeneo (a sparkling highlight of an otherwise flat show). Here’s to hoping that she can grow more comfortable in this role because she should have the goods to really tackle it and god knows the world needs more singers performing Bellini’s Norma.

On the opposite corner, soprano Marina Costa-Jackson made up for the leading lady’s shortcomings. In the key counter-weight role of Norma’s close friend, confidante and rival in love, Adalgisa, Costa-Jackson revealed herself to be an effortlessly talented singer and an attractive, charismatic stage presence. The appeal is in her instrument that is full and round and powerful. She projected out over the orchestra with feeling and warmth that always cut right to the heart of the emotional content of the moment. In her key accompaniments in those classic duets with Norma, she often risked outshining her co-star. Every time she was on stage she made it memorable.

Adalgisa faces uncertainty
Photo credit: Karen Almond
Tenor Yonghoon Lee as the treacherous lusty Pollione was also a pleasant surprise. The last few times we saw him as Manrico in Trovatore, for instance, he left me feeling rather lukewarm. But this time out his timbre seemed to have changed. He was almost more of a baritonal tenor, but he did not come off as soaring as Pollione, particularly in the Act I back to back arias Meco all’altar di Venere and Me protegge, me difende. Nevertheless, his deeper manly sound was very satisfying. Especially as he hunkered down to convince to Adalgisa to return to Rome with him. He bore his heart for all to see, delivering a really emotionally charged performance with a pretty intense stage presence. It was really a pleasure to see a singer evolve and improve like this, as last time we saw him at the Met in Trovatore he was technically accurate but not particularly soul stirring.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Oroveso had a commanding stage presence with a delivery that did not always match, but that improved throughout the evening. The Dallas Opera chorus of Druids led by chorus master Alexander Rom was pretty impressive all around, particularly in the Guerra guerra!, which was thunderous, vindictive and tribally bloody, just the way we like it.

Pollione is torn between lovers and his country
Photo credit: Karen Almond
The production was on the traditional side, with the stage framed on each side by two tall walls of primitive looking stones that gave an appropriate Stonehenge-y feel, though the pictures of mountains in the backdrop were a bit out of place since we’re not supposed to be that close to the Alps. All in all the sets looked great, with realistic details (sacrificial altars plastered in blood) and impressive use of projections, particularly when it came to the pagan god Irminsul. Costumes were also pretty traditional Druid/Roman garb, the only awkward note being the ill-fitting bald caps worn by the male chorus. While I get the idea of making all Druids bald as some sort of religious identity, execution of this concept left a little bit to be desired.

Director Nic Muni’s take on the opera was pretty straightforward and overall served well the dramatic tensions. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume was incredibly high energy and his whole body was so invested in conducting that it felt like we were watching a particular one-man modern dance piece. Acrobatics aside, maestro Villaume led the orchestra and singers brilliantly.

The Druids regroup after their diva has been revealed to be poco casta
Photo credit: Karen Almond
I always find it interesting that no matter how many times I see Norma, I inevitably come away with some new understanding about the opera. The novel take away this time around was that this is also about Norma and Pollione finding love again. I previously thought that the emotional coup in the finale is about Pollione’s begging forgiveness and Norma’s heroic self-immolation as she comes clean to her people. In this specific performance, however, Lee and van den Heever’s final duet was so charged with emotion that really came across as a deep reconciliation and re-marriage of the unhappy couple, as they can finally live truly their forbidden love and together face death. Norma’s words in this duet are particularly revealing:

Un nume, un fato di te più forte
Ci vuole uniti in vita e in morte.
Sul rogo istesso che mi divora,
Sotterra ancora sarò con te.*

The couple go to one death together forever at last
Photo credit: Karen Almond
The casta diva wasn’t so casta, as we already know, and she is ready to heroically own it. Duty bound, she goes to her death with her beloved. Though in this take I felt much more compelled by the amorous motive behind her actions. And so this time they really seemed to go out together for love.

Lei & Lui

The Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas
A god, a fate stronger than you, / Wills us together in life and death. / On the same pyre which consumes me, / And in the afterlife, I shall still be with you.

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