Thursday, March 02, 2006
A little more than a year ago, Opera Colorado GM Peter Russell revealed that the 2005-2006 season would include Bellini’s Druidic masterpiece, a first hereabouts. There were several compelling reasons that brought “Norma” to the Queen City of the Plains. First, the new opera house (then under construction) presented the sort of venue that made sharing productions with other companies economically feasible plus compatible, stage-wise. This particular “Norma” had enjoyed its debut in San Francisco. Second, Russell had managed to sign up a relatively unknown Armenian soprano to portray the title character—someone who was fairly new to the role but already considered one of its top interpreters. He wanted to ensure her availability for the four-performance run before she was booked elsewhere. Finally, OC was on the hot seat to deliver world-class productions as justification for its increased budget and higher ticket prices.
The term “bel canto” means “beautiful singing” and Vincenzo Bellini, with his dozen or so operas, was probably the most consistent purveyor of that musical style. Melodious arias, interrupted by equally melodious ensemble pieces, were his stock-in-trade. Especially for the higher voices (soprano / tenor), he composed long runs of notes and florid augmentations that show off a singer’s lyrical skills—or clearly demonstrate that they have none. Drama did not form an especially critical part of his work, even for storylines that were innately so.
The tale of “Norma” is certainly dramatic enough. The theatricality of an onstage love triangle—with confrontations, recriminations and rejections—is augmented by illegitimacy, a clash of cultures, and the abandonment of religious principles. The story makes sense, is told in a compellingly straightforward manner via a well-written libretto, and comes to a shocking conclusion—shocking to bel canto-era audiences, anyway.
So why was the “Norma” here so dull?
OK, maybe dull isn’t the right word. After all, the singing was (for the most part) gorgeous, the orchestra played exceedingly well, the set was—ummm—interesting, and the nearly full house was on its best behavior. But there was a definite lack of something. Maybe it was “drama”?
The title character was sung by Hasmik Papian. Her credentials include performances with most of the world’s major opera companies, including a stint as Aida for the Met. She has a smooth voice with the sort of complete range one wants in a bel canto soprano, and she made her top notes seem almost effortless—not “Anna Moffo effortless,” but pretty darned transcendent. The opera’s signature aria is “Casta Diva,” a showy piece that gives sopranos the chance to chew the scenery if they so choose. But Papian’s delivery was subdued, an approach that’s much better suited to the situation. This sort of portrayal might have been lost in a theater with poorer acoustics, but the fantastic sound quality of Denver’s new opera venue served her well in this interpretation. Throughout the performance, in fact, Papian was consistently the most compelling singer on the stage.
The character of Adalgisa was sung by Irina Mishura. She filled this role in the San Francisco production as well. Her voice stood well on its own and blended superbly with Papian’s during their duets. She was by far the most animated actor (more on this aspect below), with good stage presence and fine timing. Raymond Aceto was Oroveso, Norma’s father, with a rich baritone well suited to the seriousness of his role. And the audience seemed delighted to see local mezzo Jennifer DeDominici as the children’s maid, Clotilde. She sounded a lot better on this stage than she had (to my ears, anyway) in the half-dozen or so competitions I’d seen her in over the past several years.
Tenor Philip Webb, as Pollione, was adequate at best. Despite his character’s seemingly pivotal position as Norma’s former lover and Adalgisa’s current one, it’s a fairly forgettable role. In fact, toward the end of the opera when the two women are (a) confessing their undying friendship for each other and (b) trashing the man in their lives, one wonders why they don’t just run off together? Perhaps in a modern rewrite of the libretto, they would! Webb hit all his notes, but he didn’t cause much of a fuss in doing so. Since OC managed to cast two pretty strong female singers in the opera’s two most important roles, it almost didn’t matter that the Pollione here was a lightweight.
But, boy could he NOT act. At one point while Norma was downstage singing about something or other, he sort of wandered off to the rear of the set and turned his back on the audience, almost petulantly—except that would have caused him to actually show some emotion. My wife leaned over to me and whispered, “Is he taking a whizz, or what?” It sure looked like it. None of the other performers did much acting, either. I guess it’s a Bellini thing, or perhaps a bel canto thing—that Stand and Deliver mindset where all action (such as it is) grinds to a halt while the singer-of-the-moment belts out whatever words the librettist created for him or her.
Beautiful singing, for sure, but hardly much else.