Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Norma Takes Los Angeles

Bellini’s Norma
Los Angeles Opera
December 10, 2015

Norma has Pollione right where she wants him.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
This holiday season we decided to pack in some extra opera travel. First up was a trip to California to catch Bellini’s Norma at L.A. Opera, starring the much raved about Meade-Barton duo (that we missed at the Met in 2013 as they were the second cast). Opera going in L.A. is a unique experience, especially for car-averse NYC residents. While we had a vehicle, we parked it 6 blocks away from the opera house so that we could grab dinner at one of the few inspiring restaurants within a decent distance from the venue (Little Sister – delicious). That was a bad decision as six L.A. blocks are definitely not as pedestrian friendly as the equivalent in New York, particularly if half of that is on a steep hill (and one of us is wearing jeweled high heels and it’s suddenly raining – isn’t California going through a drought?!?). But we could not afford to risk driving to the show, not find a parking spot nearby and miss the beginning of the opera! Once we got to the opera house, albeit flustered and soaked, we took in the spectacular setting as this particular stretch of North Grand Avenue is packed with majestic yet thrillingly modern buildings (the MOCA, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the most recent fantastic-looking museum, The Broad, and, of course, L.A. Opera), lending this stretch the air of a grandiose canyon of culture.

Norma occupies a sacred place all her own.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
Once inside where it was dry, the opening bars of the overture whisked us away to Bellini-land. Norma is truly one of the most complex and multi-faceted female characters. Throughout the narrative arc of the opera she navigates her issues in her role as a mother (almost kills her kids to spite her ex-lover), daughter (hides her relationship and kids from her father), priestess (breaches all vows to her gods), lover (humiliated by her man), mentor (betrayed by her naive mentee) and political leader (decides to wage war or not depending on the ups and downs of her private love interest). After all her mistakes, though, Norma’s final repentance and self-immolation in atonement redeem her and transform her journey into a most humanly cathartic and tragically empowering story. Opera rarely gets better than this.

Norma transitions into her domestic self.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
The spectrum of emotions of Norma is so broad and the bel canto vocal demands to express them so challenging that there are very few singers in the world capable to tackle this soprano assoluta role. Soprano Angela Meade is one of them and she delivered a terrific performance, riding the emotional rollercoaster of the Druid priestess with control, agility and fire. While I was not blown away by her Casta Diva (accurate but lukewarm), Meade really rose to the challenge from Oh rimembranza onwards, i.e. when Norma discovers Pollione betrayed her with Adalgisa. From that moment on, her emotional temperature rose and kept rising throughout, Meade’s Norma shined best when she got angry and released her fury. Her singing was electric, expressing waves of rage and hurt that kept the audience on the edge of their seats. Meade’s ability to switch from swooningly tender to thunderously furious was impressive. This soprano perfectly embodied Norma’s conflict between private feelings and public power, which is the essence of Norma’s “soprano assoluta” character. I found Meade’s acting improved, too. This production did not have her move much but she mastered small expressive gestures with high impact (such as disdainfully refusing Adalgisa’s touch at the end of Act I or else throwing the child-murdering-dagger away in Act II).  

A little girl talk with her protégée Adalgisa (right).
Photo credit: L.A. Opera 
Mezzo Jamie Barton as Adalgisa was mesmerizing. I expected her to be great but the liquid velvet of her voice and her magnetic stage presence were quite extraordinary. When Adalgisa made her entrance with her first aria Sgombra è la selva, she embodied young naive love torn between pleasure and duty with a freshness and a bright eyed joy that was utterly moving. Not only are Barton’s vocal control and agility impressive (particularly when she switches swiftly from low to high register), but her acting chops are pretty serious too, from her facial expressions to her body language, she truly is a complete artist. Her charisma is special, she is one of those singers who manages to hook you right at the chest and draw you into the beautiful melody she’s singing, leaving you hypnotized and content. This mezzo’s sound is plush and seductive by itself, but when intertwined with Meade’s creamy soprano in the many Norma/Adalgisa duets, it was pure operatic bliss, the air vibrated and the result was insanely beautiful.

Adalgisa opens up space and time.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
There were a couple of revelations tonight. Jamie Barton was definitely one of them. Finally seeing her live did not disappoint. Vocally the colors of her mezzo soprano are utterly unique. I wasn’t ready for her fresh, bright sound. It has a throaty fullness. She came across so clear and strong and her enunciation in Italian was always solid. But what really struck me was her singing stage presence. She really opened up certain moments with confidence the way she really slowed down, took her time in unfolding the story of her love affair with Pollione, really savoring the emotions of the moment musically. This is a transcendent quality for a singer of her young age to possess. It’s diva quality but she doesn’t exude any of the other haughty star qualities. She seems so down to earth.

Pollione in the moving finale.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
Tenor Russell Thomas was another of the revelations of the night. Not only did he prove me wrong on my “tenor famine” theory but he also led me to see the Pollione character in a radical new light. Thomas’ sound is powerful and manly yet warm, ardent and desperate yet round with feeling, and he can hit his high notes with the heroic certainty of a Roman general. His performance during the final act, in particular, moved me to tears. When are you ever supposed to feel for Pollione? He is the perfect male jerk, shallow, fickle, always going for the younger woman, here today, gone tomorrow, faithless, in denial of his fatherhood. But when he is sung with feeling and pathos, the finale takes on another twist. His downfall suddenly becomes moving. When Pollione finally sees Norma’s greatness (she acknowledges her own hypocrisy, spares Adalgisa, saves her kids and faces bravely death by fire for her own mistakes), he falls in love with her all over again:

Ah! Troppo tardi t’ho conosciuta!

Sublime donna, io t’ho perduta!
Col mio rimorso è amor rinato,
Più disperato, furente egli è!
Moriamo insieme, ah, sì, moriamo!
L’estremo accento sarà ch’io t’amo.
Ma tu morendo, non m’abborrire,
Pria di morire, perdona a me!

The intensity of Thomas’ rendition of this particular moment was raw, desperate and heartwarming, changing forever the way I think about Pollione. When in the right hands, Bellini’s music really redeems him, too, at the end. When he comes around and recognizes again his love for Norma and they go hand in hand to their shared funeral pyre, they truly go down in a blaze of glory. It was all thanks to Thomas’s visceral embodiment of Pollione. He was just that moving.

Ite sul colle, o Druidi!
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
Oroveso was played by Bass Morris Robinson, a big man with a big thundering voice. I was particularly moved by his final duet with Norma when he switches from furious (she hid from him her relationship with the enemy not to mention her offspring) to moved (he’s a grandpa!).

Priestesses grace the stage.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
When it comes to director Anne Bogart’s choices, however, I was not too impressed. The sets were dominated by a hilly hardwood floor, with a corporate-looking building on the right (symbolizing the Roman force of order and conquest) and a bunch of ill-arranged pieces of lumber vaguely recalling a forest of two-by-fours propping up the left wall (representing the fortress of the nature-loving Druids, I suppose, though looking more like an Ikea advertisement). In the middle there was a circular space used for the Casta Diva ritual and Norma’s family time with her kids. Nothing too exciting except for the use of lighting with the moon rising during the war chorus Guerra guerra! (chorus that, incidentally, lacked the necessary fire).

Costumes were uneven, with the two leading ladies wearing wonderful gowns with jeweled corsets but the rest of the Druids were really in rags. Also, why on earth Pollione was sporting a nineteenth-century military coat and his wingmen traditional Roman armor and red capes? Finally, quite some time was spent on choreographies by a group of lovely dancers, however the dance numbers did not really work with the rest of the staging, and looked more like an afterthought.

Invocation of the moon. Awaiting the war cry.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
But, when the cast and the orchestra (lead by maestro James Colon) are so sensational, these production missteps are really minor flaws as they did not detract to an otherwise spectacular and all too rare performance of this Bellini masterpiece.

– Lui & Lei

Full moon on the rise.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera

* Too late, too late
I have known you –
Sublime woman, I lost you,
With my remorse Love is reborn,
A madder, more desperate love.
Let us die together, yes, let us die:
My last word will be that I love you.
But you, in dying, must not hate me.
Before you die, forgive me.  

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