The Teatro alla Scala in Milan gave the first performance in 1831, on the day after Christmas. The role of Norma was written for Giuditta Pasta who regularly sang leading bel canto roles in London, Paris, Milan and Naples between 1824 and 1837. Besides Norma, Pasta created the title role in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Amina in Bellini’s La sonambula. Maria Callas, the most famous bel canto diva of the twentieth century, portrayed Norma in eighty-nine performances with important opera companies around the world.
On Saturday evening, November 21, 2015, Los Angeles Opera premiered Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma in a production by Anne Bogart that was originally seen at the Washington National Opera. It featured a severely raked minimal set by Neil Patel and colorful, luxurious costumes by James Schuette. Like many operas of the bel canto era, Norma is more about singing than acting and LAO assembled an outstanding cast that easily handled Bellini’s difficult music.
Angela Meade was the Druid priestess and dedicated virgin who had secretly borne two children to her Roman lover. Meade sang her music in the grand style of this seminal opera. Despite an occasional shrill high note, her singing grew in authority, confidence and effect as the voice warmed and her “Casta Diva” was emotionally and dramatically eloquent. Although not much action was played out on stage, this Norma always used her vocal resources to express the drama.
Bellini used simple technical methods of instrumentation, together with long melodies bolstered by conventional harmony, to produce the passionate emotional qualities of the score. Casting some of the finest singers performing today, Bogart relied on their ability to act with their voices and she allowed them to put the story of the love triangle across the footlights with their vocal colorations. She showed the Gauls’ dislike of Roman occupation by her treatment of Grant Gershon’s chorus, members of which sang their melodic and rhythmic lines with gusto.
The most beautiful voice in the performance belonged to debutante mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton who sang a creamy-smooth Adalgisa. It’s unfortunate that her character has no aria, but Barton showed her virtuosity in a most exquisite rendering of the duet “Mira o Norma.” Also debuting that night, tenor Russell Thomas was Pollione, the Roman proconsul in Gaul. Because Pollione has betrayed Norma with Adalgisa it is an ungrateful part, but Thomas sang it with a powerful dark voice that he used in fine bel canto style. Morris Robinson’s Oroveso commanded the stage and provided all the breadth, dignity and ocean-deep sonority that Bellini’s music demanded.
Two members of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program sang the parts of Flavio and Clotilde. Rafael Moras and Lacey Jo Benter showed great promise and proved they can hold the stage with the best singers of our age. Choreographer Barney O’Hanlon’s dancers reminded us that the piece takes place in a Druid stronghold and they added to its religious aspect. James Conlon’s masterly conducting grounded and emphasized the beauty of the singing. His translucent interpretation reminded listeners of the numerous simple but original strokes of genius to be found in Bellini’s instrumentation. Sometimes opera is great theater, at other times it is simply incredible singing. Los Angeles Opera’s Norma was a feast for the ears.
Cast and production information:
Conductor, James Conlon; Director, Anne Bogart; Set Designer, Neil Patel; Costume Designer, James Schuette; Lighting Designer, Duane Schuler; Chorus Director, Grant Gershon; Choreographer, Barney O’Hanlon; Oroveso, Morris Robinson; Pollione, Russell Thomas; Flavio, Rafael Moras; Norma, Angela Meade; Adalgisa, Jamie Barton; Clotilde, Lacey Jo Benter.
image_description=Jamie Barton as Adalgisa in LA Opera’s 2015 production of “Norma.” (Photo: Ken Howard)
product_title=LA Opera Norma: A Feast for the Ears
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Jamie Barton as Adalgisa [Photo by Ken Howard]