Monday, October 07, 2013

The fire

Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 9/30/2013 & 10/4/2013
Radvanovsky, Aldrich, Antonenko, Morris / Frizza

It was always clear that she had the pieces. That huge, instantly arresting sound, providing self-evident significance to every note. The marriage of force and flexibility (including trill!) in a true dramatic coloratura instrument. The control, the feel for the bel canto line, and the thrill of rhythmic attack... even a sort of dramatic gameness. But one would not have thought that the most indelible fact of Sondra Radvanovsky's triumph as Norma last Monday would have been the sublime extended musical-dramatic concentration of its last fatal scenes, as striking a feat as Joyce DiDonato's a season ago in Donizetti's four-years-later masterpiece Maria Stuarda.

For not since the first advent of her stardom in those too-little-seen Luisa Millers a dozen seasons back has Radvanovsky seemed so wholly at one with her part. Perhaps it took all the great parts in between -- most recently (Trovatore's) Leonora, Tosca, and Amelia -- to accustom her to seizing the action with the grand abandon of her characters. (And we in fact see bits of these previous assumptions in the private rage and desperation, public grandeur, and the interplay between these states that define this Norma's story.)

Vocally, Radvanovsky goes for big contrasts, to an extent one has not seen her try in a single night. The transition between the restraint and shaded control of Norma's public "Casta diva" to the explosive private emotional display that follows from the cabaletta is felt as well as observed, as she unlooses full sonic force for the latter. Similarly, the turn from slow to fast in her first duet with Adalgisa ("Ah sì, fa core, abbracciami") is so instantly marked by the thrill of forward motion that its message of release is clear just from rhythm. Many such touches abound, but most striking of all is the climactic pianissimo "Son io"... as Norma/Radvanovsky finally accuses herself in the way least familiar to us and to her.

*     *     *

It's even more to Radvanovsky's credit that she triumphs now in a revival production -- and not one of great note, but a workmanlike John Copely show that, before this season, had only seen failure. (She didn't get much dramatically out of a similar attempt at Vespri some seasons back.) In fact it's not a bad physical production: moon shapes and themes are clearly emphasized above the stage; it's just that the human action below is still a bit of a jumble. (That said, better this than David Alden's sense-free Ballo.)

But though no David McVicar was present, excellent musical colleagues were. Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza has had some moderate success here in Rigoletto, Trovatore, and Armida, but none of that was really noteworthy. Here, he is sharp and orderly, giving proper detailed expression to both the long and the urgent phrases of Bellini's opera without pulling the singers around. Excellent work. Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko is just the sort of big, dark-ish, confident voice one wants to hear as Pollione -- not too complicated (though seeing Yonghoon Lee in this would be interesting), but not as wholly stiff as, say, Giordani became over the course of his Met ubiquity. James Morris sounds a bit old and rhythmically inflexible as Oroveso, but he's always sounded off in non-Wagner appearances: in any case he retains his authority. Tenor Eduardo Valdes and new-ish Anglo-American soprano Sian Davies are as good in the sidekick parts as one expects from the Met.

The only lapse here is, as usual, Adalgisa, the big lyric soprano part eternally miscast with mezzos. To be fair, Kate Aldrich is (though a lesser singer) a much more appropriate choice for the role than the original in this production, Dolora Zajick -- Aldrich at least looks and can act the ingenue, and her lyric mezzo is more sonically plausible than the grand dramatic was. But the high notes aren't easy, she's far from an equal partner with Radvanovsky in the duets, and, well, even if one accepts that Radvanovsky is sui generis, Aldrich's somewhat grainy sound (perhaps because overtaxed) blends poorly with the star's unmistakable squillo. Unfortunately, as Gelb's Met is likely too set in its ways to hire, say, Ruth Ann Swenson, we're stuck with this approximate Adalgisa doing her best.

*     *     *

Gelb's Met is probably too set in its ways to somehow movie- or even radiocast this landmark revival either, so make sure you catch it in person. Radvanovsky seems to be getting only more confident, and though you likely won't see the awed emotionality in her bows that we got last Monday, any successful Norma is an event.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.