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Friday, February 24, 2006

“Norma”—Part One

One of the selling points of the city-wide bond issue that was sold to Denver voters a few years ago, was the argument that a world-class opera house would attract world-class productions. Add to that the hiring of Peter Russell—formerly an upper-level functionary with the Met in New York City—as general manager of Opera Colorado. A new venue and new blood in the front office was destined to do great things for Denver’s image as The Crappy Little Cowtown That Could … (barely) Support the Arts.

Notwithstanding my personal artistic disagreement with Mr. Russell (he loves Wagner’s music and despises Meyerbeer’s, while I profess the exact opposite sentiments), no one can argue with his immediate vision of how to reach the Big Time—or at least the “pretty big time”—of things operatic. The Opening Gala featured Renee Fleming and a whole host of somewhat lesser vocal luminaries. The company’s production of “Carmen” starred the reigning queen of that role, Denyce Graves, who reportedly scheduled a break in her run at the Met as a personal favor to Russell. Hey, it helps to have friends in high places!

Expanding OC’s repertoire beyond the pallid “Bohemes”–“Traviatas”–“Nozzes” that all too often litter the landscape of opera companies from Secaucus to San Jose—wait a minute; does Secaucus even have an opera company?—was one of the promises made to local opera-goers while the Auditorium Theatre was being transformed into “The Ellie.” I recognize that a fine line must be trod between selling out the house (1120 performances of “La Boheme” at the Met since 1900 helps tell that tale) and a willingness to go out on a limb to produce operas that are all too rarely performed but need to be heard.

All three of next season’s Opera Colorado productions have been done here before, although two of them aren’t exactly household names. “Magic Flute” is definitely up there in performance frequency around the country, while Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’Amore” are produced with only moderate regularity.

Sometimes an opera has faded away because there is no one out there worthy of singing the role(s). “Norma” is one of those operas. I’m not saying that Bellini’s most popular work (barely edging out second-place “Puritani” and far ahead of both “Pirata” and “Sonnambula”) is NEVER performed, but it’s certainly underrepresented on the world’s stages. The last great Norma was Joan Sutherland and, before her, Maria Callas. That’s a long time ago. Also, the vocal demands of this particular bel canto work are such that often an extra day’s rest is prescribed between performances. The role of Adalgisa is important enough to require a mezzo with some pretty good pipes as well. This is no queen’s maid, shrinking confidante, or similar comprimario part typical of other seconda donnas. The CD I own of this opera—a Decca recording from 1988—features Sutherland in the title role and no less a luminary than Montserrat Caballe as her “friendly” rival. Pavarotti is Pollione and Sam Ramey is Oroveso to round out more than a pretty good cast.

More next week on this topic, including a review of the Opera Colorado production.

It's such a pity to lose those operas, though! It's what happened to Forza del Destino... there's a show that requires an all-star cast, and it was correspondingly almost an annual treat during the Met's height. Not so anymore. Who can sing it? More to the point, who can do justice to it?

But the list of operas abandond for lack of great voices is long... let's hope that some of these make it back into the regular repertoire!
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