By Arthur Kaptainis
TORONTO – The ideal solution to a problem, a lawyer once told me, is one that makes everyone a little unhappy. Alas, the axiom does not apply to the opera stage, or at least did not on Oct. 6 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, where a misbegotten if relatively harmless version of Bellini’s Norma opened the Canadian Opera Company (COC) season.
Subscribers to the Lyric Opera in Chicago (where this co-production, minted in Barcelona and already seen in San Francisco, lands in January) can rest assured that the title character does not arrive by helicopter and that the ancient Gauls whom she serves as high priestess are not grey-suited drones working for a multinational corporation. But neither can postmodern enthusiasts hope for anything particularly daring to chat about.
For this co-production, which continues at the Four Seasons Centre through Nov. 5, director Kevin Newbury has made the setting vaguely historical, with the stress on vaguely. We seem to be in a fortress with a great gate of the portcullis type that rises and falls at irregular intervals to reveal an exterior stand of trees. Suspended horizontally, at least in the early going, is a branch, from which Norma does indeed cut a sprig while standing on a something resembling a siege tower.
Walls and pilasters are classically articulated but their surfaces are made of what looks like wood. Steer heads adorn either side of the gate and a gigantic skeletal bull with one horn (the signature property of the production) is wheeled in during the second act as a platform for sacrifice.
How the detested Roman proconsul Pollione could easily pass in and out of this improbable Druid redoubt (designed by David Korins) is unclear. Loose-fitting costumes by Jessica Jahn straddle the old and the new. Pollione wears a black leather vest that could be associated with just about any culture other than Roman. In public Norma dons a glittery gown from the closet of Theda Bara.
In the director’s notes all is explained: Game of Thrones. Ah.
Whatever one’s view of borrowing thematic elements from a television show – mine is that it reflects a lack of imagination – the visuals did not seriously interfere with individual performances. Sondra Radvanovsky was a powerful and convincing actress, even when reflecting on the merits of infanticide. Retaining the sympathy of the audience in this problematic scene strikes me as a major accomplishment.
Brilliant on top whether opening the throttle or floating at pianissimo, this imposing soprano can sound a tad leathery in the middle. “Casta Diva” was self-conscious in style and taken more slowly than it needed to be. Nevertheless, confrontations and proclamations were exciting and the duet with Adalgisa (the bright and confident mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard) proved suitably mellifluous.
Russell Thomas, a COC regular, was firmly dramatic in tone and manner as Norma’s secret husband Pollione. Only the Act I aria, heavy and loud, elicited a reservation. Charles Sy, another tenor, was a clarion Flavio, and bass Dimitry Ivashchenko declaimed impressively (after a shaky beginning) as the high priest Oroveso. The young soprano cast as Clotilde has had better nights.
As indeed has the old pro Stephen Lord, a leisurely conductor through much of the evening. After a harsh start in the overture, the COC Orchestra sounded more like its lyrical self. The chorus was sturdy as prepared by Sandra Horst.
Stage action was plausible enough in simple domestic encounters, but much of the ensemble movement was listless. For reasons that were unclear, the warriors entered in Act II before the ladies made their exit. The table on which Norma performed symbolic sacrifices (and Adalgisa fidgeted) looked like a tea wagon, at least from a distance. Falling snow was sadly artificial. Where was Bing Crosby?
In sum: a cast that could be congratulated with reservations for what it was, and a production that could be credited in a small way for what it was not. Elza van den Heever takes over from Radvanovsky in the last four performances of the run.
Note: For details on performances, click here.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.