Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; October 14, 2013—There really is only one reason for any opera company to mount Bellini’s Norma, and that is if it can find a soprano (or mezzo, at times) worthy of the role. One of the longest, most vocally complex, and most emotionally grueling of all soprano parts, the great soprano of the early 19th century Lilli Lehmann said it was more difficult than all four Brünnhildes! It has been a long time since the role was well-filled at the Met, but in Sandra Radvanovsky, a “house” soprano who has been growing in stature over the last few years in Verdi roles, the Met has hit the jackpot.
Let us forget about comparisons—Radvanovsky is her own singer with her own style; she will remind no one of Caballé, Callas, Sutherland, Sills, Scotto, or Cerquetti, to reach back a bit, nor of Devia or Gruberova. Radvanovsky’s voice is big from top to bottom, with surprising ease at the top of her range, and she tempers it with precise dynamics and fine phrasing. She’s also fluent in the coloratura that is essential to the part; she skipped easily through “Ah, bella a me ritorna”, the cabaletta to her opening aria.
Temperamentally, she has what it takes to express Norma’s stillness and piety in “Casta diva”, her friendship with Adalgisa, and later, her rage and vindictiveness and ultimate sadness. You could ask for more of a snarl, or more chest voice at key moments, but at what cost? I suspect that the Met has not heard a floated pianissimo like hers since Caballé, and her top Bs, Cs, and D are as big as Sutherland’s. (Okay, a bit of a comparison.)
Kate Aldrich, a fine mezzo under other circumstances, seemed overparted as Adalgisa, although she and Radvanovsky blended well in their duets. Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Pollione was full-blooded (he’s a well-known Otello) and exciting, but his acting was rudimentary, and James Morris’ Oroveso was sung with gloomy authority even though somewhat paler than previously.
Which leaves us with the production and direction. The former, by John Copley, is ugly and drab—how is it possible to make the moon look boring? Norma’s blue-sequined gown is so out of place that it must come from a non-Druid neighborhood; granted, she’s a high priestess, but the locals would rebel if they were stuck in their blah outfits. And Stephen Pickover’s “direction” is pathetic—the chorus wanders around forming circles and then un-forming them; you are surprised that they aren’t looking at their watches.
Riccardo Frizza’s conducting is pure bel canto, considerate of the singers, and aware of the long melodies. Go to see and hear Sandra Radvanovsky. She’s a fascinating artist and delivers the goods.