Review: Radvanovsky and DiDonato Sparkle in a Dim New ‘Norma’ at the Metropolitan Opera
Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, September 26, 2017
It’s hard to believe that Norma has opened the Metropolitan Opera season only three times. Bellini’s bel-canto masterpiece, flush with vocal fireworks, an interesting and concise book, and a title role that defines greatness seems just the right stuff with which to celebrate a season.
And so it was last night. Vocal fireworks were certainly on display as the Met opened its year with Norma starring its two leading house bel-canto sopranos. These women are treasures. Pure treasures. Joined by some very impressive singing from Matthew Rose, elegant conducting from Carlo Rizzi and sensitive work from tenor Joseph Calleja late in the game, they delivered excitement in an otherwise dull new production from another Metropolitan Opera favorite, Sir David McVicar.
More on McVicar in a bit, but let’s focus first on success. Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) is vocal heaven. She has sung many of the Met’s recent high profile bel-canto roles – the title role of Maria Stuarda prior to her co-star last night and a breathtaking Cinderella in the Met’s La Cenerentola. This season, she again sings Cinderella, now in Massanet’s rare and anticipated Cendrillon. DiDonato’s isn’t a huge voice. But it is round, plushy, nuanced and intelligently produced. No singer, and I repeat no singer singing today, understands bel-canto better than DiDonato. She’s also a solid actor. She’s beautiful. So my advice is not to miss Joyce DiDonato. In anything.
Sondra Radvanovsky made a splash two years ago singing Donizetti’s three queens (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) for the first time in a season since Beverly Sills in the 1970s. It was a smart bit of programming on the part of the Met. It was also an impressive vocal success (from Radvanovsky and her casts) and an artistic win for New York. The endeavor was also a win for Radvanovsky, a feat that significantly raised her profile.
Well, you can chalk up another win for Sondra Radvanovsky. Her vocal prowess is impressive, her technique comfortable. She brings a vocal weight that can cut through any ensemble. And while hers may not always be most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard (the same was said of Callas), it is a sound that is very often brilliant – crystal clear and confident at the top and preceded by spectacular accuracy on the journey. I will go anywhere to hear Sondra Radvanovsky.
The woman is also a fierce actor. “…the rich character work…, the strong dramatic choices and the clarity of scene that they bring to their performance takes this production from very good to absolutely thrilling…” we wrote of Radvanovsky and her companions Ildar Abdrazakov and Jamie Barton in the 2015 Anna Bolena.
Her work last night was equally thrilling. Norma, a Druid high priestess, makes some very human decisions late in the night, and here Radvanovsky is honest and supple, her path clear and edge-of-the-seat engaging.
A voice of this quality in the body of an actor of this skill guided by a mind of this honesty is opera gold. And Sondra Radvanovsky is opera gold.
Now back to the production. The Met’s current season smacks just a bit of “budget.” A new and anticipated La Forza del Destino by Spanish director Calixto Bieito was cancelled in January. New productions at the Met are down to five. The snappy banners that have announced running productions on the front of the house in recent years are absent. Pre-season press photography is thin.
Equally thin is McVicar’s new production of Norma with a stage design by Robert Jones, costumes by Moritz Junge and lighting by Paule Constable. Norma’s dwelling, a dome structure made of a tangle of wood, is interesting at first glance. But its gloomy interior grows tiresome quickly, particularly as it shades the action of the cast. A stage light was irritatingly visible stage-left throughout. The preceding set, a pedestrian forest scene anchored by a large tree trunk, was difficult to navigate by the cast, catching costumes and offering very little in the way of interesting acting space. The final pyre was an uninspired burst of red light.
Ms. DiDonato’s off-the-shoulder tunic throughout is oddly and embarrassingly way-off-the-shoulder.
McVicar, who mounts a new Tosca to replace the Met’s controversial and artistically fascinating Luc Bondy production at the end of this year, has had success at the Met. His Anna Bolena was sound, “..dark doings are brightly exposed in Robert Jone’s successful set, an intricate coffered ceiling capping stark white stone walls that bring the sordid action into vivid relief.” His Roberto Devereux was sensible. But there have been missteps. That black-hole of a table that sits in the middle of so much of his Maria Stuarda for instance.
And now a drab Norma, brightened happily by a brilliant cast lead by the world’s two leading bel-canto sopranos.
Norma plays through December 16 at the Metropolitan Opera House. Sopranos Marina Rebveka and Angela Meade sing the title role later in the run.
Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini, at The Metropolitan Opera House in a production directed by Sir David McVicar, sets by Robert Jones, costumes by Moritz Junge and lighting by Paule Constable is conducted by Carlo Rizzi and features Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), Matthew rose (Orveso), Joseph Calleja (Pollione), Adam Diegel (Flavio), Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) Michelle Bradley (Clotilde) and Christopher Reynolds and John Reynolds (Norma’s children).
Cover Photo: Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of ‘Norma,’ directed by Sir David McVicar; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.