By James L. Paulk
NEW YORK — As the Metropolitan Opera opened its season Sept. 25 with a new David McVicar production of Norma starring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, expectations were quite high. Radvanovsky is perhaps opera’s reigning diva, and the Met has showcased her like no other artist. Especially, for example, two seasons ago when she starred in all three operas comprising Donizetti’s Tudor queens trilogy.
And Norma is not just Bellini’s stunning masterpiece, it is the ultimate bel canto opera, epitomizing an era when hugely talented singers navigated intricate, elaborate melodies, showing off their flexibility, range, power, and control. In Norma, the challenges are super-sized, especially for the singer portraying Norma. For “Casta Diva” she must summon breath and tone control as the seductively slow aria unfolds. At other times, she needs to muster towering rage and power. The role demands extraordinary stamina and agility; it rewards tonal beauty. The dramatic requirements are similarly steep.
So demanding is the title role that opera companies ignore the opera for decades at a time. And then, when the right singer arrives, it seems that every one of them mounts a major new production for her. In Radvanovsky’s case, her triumphant performances at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013 set in motion a sort of world tour which is still unfolding.
In some ways, Radvanovsky’s voice is uniquely suited to this role. She has power to spare, wondrous coloratura technique, and floating high notes. Problems are emerging, however. Compared to her earlier performances, there is now an occasional harder edge to her upper range. Her volume is unsteady in the exposed crescendos. The rhythm is ambiguous. Most of all, her technique seems more noticeably transparent; you are aware of the extraordinary difficulty of what she is doing. On the one hand, this focuses the listener’s attention too much on the process, but it also makes her come across as more human and vulnerable, a nice metaphor for Norma.
Her scenery-chewing charisma and dramatic intensity, on the other hand, seem stronger than ever. In McVicar’s hands she is the embodiment of Norma, moving with uncommon grace, choreographed like a dancer, her face and hand gestures telegraphing her emotions. It was these qualities, recalling the great Normas of the past, that accounted for the undeniable electricity in the room.
The role of Adalgisa isn’t entirely new to DiDonato; she sang it in a concert Norma at Salzburg in 2010. Still, this is a departure into a heftier role than those she’s been singing, and it turned out to be a splendid success. Her voice is beautifully colored, her coloratura technique is ravishing, and she has the same kind of dramatic intensity that propels Radvanovsky. Their scenes together were dynamite.
Tenor Joseph Calleja, who sang Pollione, has an ardent, tremulous, expressive voice with considerable power. On the other hand, there’s a pronounced nasal quality to his sound, and on this night he had a tendency to sing flat. His portrayal was at times stiff and unconvincing. As Norma’s father Oroveso, Matthew Rose displayed a strong bass and authoritative demeanor.
On this playbill, Carlo Rizzi, the conductor, stood out as something of a dark horse. For decades he’s conducted around Europe and occasionally at the Met, but he lacks the kind of superstar reputation you’d expect on such a big night. Yet he was an inspired choice and a lesson in clear, forceful direction, carefully supporting his singers and the superb Met chorus. Judging from this performance, we’ll probably be seeing more of him.
McVicar’s production is perhaps the most old-fashioned new staging of anything at the Met in several years. The forest scenes took place in a rather bleak stylized grove of tall tree trunks which could be hydraulically moved around, and there were touches such as a platform, crudely lashed together, for Norma’s appearances. A stage elevator facilitated scene changes, lifting the forest to reveal Norma’s domed grotto. Robert Jones was the set designer.
The problem with this production is that it is unrelentingly dark. At times, it was hard to make out the facial expressions of the singers. Paul Constable, who designed the lighting, tried to keep things from becoming monotonous with variations on a moon-and-stars theme, but it was a losing battle. It probably looked quite different for the HD telecast audience, not to mention the Times Square audience watching this performance via live relay. Those of us in the opera house, however, could have used a few more watts.
McVicar’s great gift lies in his ability to get stark, honest, dramatic portrayals from his singers. Especially, in this case, from Radvanovsky and DiDonato. These are likely to emerge even more vividly on the telecasts, aided by close-ups and the ability to see the singers’ faces clearly.
Moritz Junge’s costumes nicely managed the trick of mixing elegance with primitive tradition. Radvanovsky wore simple gowns, her hair fashionably tangled. DiDonato got a short, boyish haircut that enhanced her youthful allure.
The previous two seasons at the Met opened with relatively radical productions: Bart Sher’s abstract Otello in 2015, and Mariusz Treliński’s bold, metaphor-filled Tristan und Isolde in 2016. The Met audience is changing, becoming more tolerant of productions that once would have provoked booing and anger. But much of the audience here is still quite conservative, as are many of the major donors. The rousing ovations on opening night were mostly about singing, but when the production team came out, the response was one of enthusiasm and relief from much of the crowd.
Additional performances will take place from Sept. 28 through Dec. 16. For details and tickets, go here. The Oct. 7 matinee performance of Norma will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met’s Live in HD series, which is now seen in more than 2,000 movie theaters in 73 countries around the world.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.