Saturday, October 26, 2013

The tightrope / the passenger

Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 10/18/2013
Radvanovsky, Aldrich, Antonenko, Morris / Frizza
Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 10/24/2013
Meade, Barton, Antonenko, Orlov (d) / Frizza

Perhaps it's from some listener fatigue on my part, but one of the more striking things about last Friday's Norma seemed to be how much everyone else therein must have realized that this was Sondra Radvanovsky's show. Not just in billing or number of notes or decibel level, but in actual significance: the possibilities of the run turning out to be "about" someone else instead of or in addition to the named heroine -- always in the air at a first night -- had by this third week dissipated. So the air seemed a bit let out whenever the star was offstage, even as Aleksandrs Antonenko and Kate Aldrich rumbled through their love duet with full force and excellent accompaniment from Riccardo Frizza. They did their thing professionally and with no lack of skill, but only Radvanovsky dared to test the moment -- over and over, even this late in the run, continuing to respond to the challenges of the part and the by now frankly adulatory audience -- with new attempts at the boundary of what she or any singer can do. This time it was the big first cabaletta that exploded into the ear with yet-unheard fire, and if this first-act aggressiveness required Radvanovsky to dial back the excesses she'd previously delivered in the second act (instead of blasting with/over the chorus through their entire call for war and blood, she stuck just to her written bits until blasting a high note at the end) it was worth it not least because she went for it.

Only... in this cast, no one but the conductor Frizza seems fit to join her on that tightrope, in the glorious madness of the now. Antonenko is a wonderfully forceful and solid foil even when vocally a bit off, but that's it -- he's a foil, not a co-conspirator. Traditionally it's the Adalgisa who catalyzes the duets, but Aldrich is just overmatched, and while James Morris has set more than just rocks on fire as Wotan, well, here he doesn't get to play Wotan.

November 1 is unmissable even as a one-woman show, but with another more equal participant it (or its re-revival, if the Met isn't stupid) might be historic. I suppose we can't wait for Yonghoon Lee to take up Pollione, so it would have to be an Adalgisa.

*     *     *

Now last night's new-cast Norma probably requires both a fair evaluation and a just one. To be fair, Angela Meade is surely the second best Norma this production has seen: she can actually sing the part, with good volume and a pleasant, consistent, and more conventionally lyrical basic sound than her predecessor. There is a worrisomely broadening vibrato at the top of the staff, attempts to float high notes are touch-and-go on support and intonation, and she doesn't get everything one can from Bellini's score, but Meade certainly does the opera enough justice to make the it work. This has been rare over the years, and if we hadn't seen her predecessor, we might think it unreasonable to ask for more than what Meade delivers in any particular season's attempt...

To be just, however... this doesn't even turn out to be Meade's show. It's Jamie Barton, now apparently fully transformed from near-inaudible Council Finals winner to next in the line of great American mezzo honkers (as Dolora Zajick ages and Stephanie Blythe reigns), who most impressively compels eye and ear -- but if she hadn't stolen the show, Antonenko might himself have done it. Meade's account is a traversal, a negotiation -- not a dare.

Her weakness in this seems to me unfortunately tied to her appeal. Meade's basic sound is a comforting one -- clean, straightforward, not luxuriant but self-contained. Unlike Radvanovsky's disconcertingly vibrato- and air-borne sound, ready to arc to the next turn of phrase or feeling, Meade's notes seem settled in place even for the span of her coloratura. And yes, this makes it really uncomfortable when the aforementioned flaws in Meade's production crop up, but I don't think ironing them out would make for much more success as Norma. The real problem is that this settledness pervades Meade's musical and dramatic approach, so that the great non-sonic triumphs of Radvanovsky's account -- contrast and dramatic responsiveness -- are conspicuously absent. Perhaps it's unfair to expect a comparable dynamic range -- Meade seemed to sing most of Act I between mp and mf, not the ppp and fff we've been hearing, and didn't dare any of the messa di voce stuff (that is, a crescendo and decrescendo on the same long note, one of those absurdly difficult tests of full bel canto mastery) -- but gone too were the contrasts of mood and feeling: the cabalettas, shorn of their ecstasy, seemed like out-of-character showoff, and while she can execute attacks and follow Frizza in his energetic tempi, she's just along for the ride, even smoothing out rather than finding the thrill of these musical turns.

Dramatically Meade has the classic stimmdiva lack of bite and specificity. Again, though one can excuse her lack of high-priestess command that it took Radvanovsky many productions to internalize, the lack of fine attention to the emotional moment(s) is a big loss. The final scenes were most affected. Here Radvanovsky had, in the last few shows, been so seemingly charged by the energies of piece and of audience that she went for an emotional precision perhaps greater than what her production and colleagues could really support... Meade, while offering probably her best singing of the night (though no blasting over the chorus, even at the end, in case you were wondering), expressed only generalized rage followed by generalized sorrow, so that the transition seemed one of those inexplicable twists that people use to make fun of opera and not the sublime tragic resolution we had seen for three weeks.

These limitations didn't hurt Meade in the gloomy, largely passive part of Anna Bolena -- and indeed they may have helped. But Norma is singularly difficult for a reason, and, fairly or no, it's disappointing that Meade didn't more push her limits in this encyclopediac role. Again, note Meade's mezzo colleague: though uncongenially cast in range, figure, and likely even character (I haven't much seen her, but she seems rather too assertive for an ingenue), Barton went for broke on the (too-)high stuff, threw herself admirably even into the acting of Adalgisa's conflicted love and repentance, and seized her time on stage as Meade did not. And though Barton had less over the evening to do, her clear full resonant tone was the dominant force in the at-last-well-blended duets, which, not least for her presence, were the highlight of this evening.

Ievgen Orlov, a young Ukrainian bass with a nice, full, very Slavic sound, sang Oroveso in place of James Morris. Nice debut, will see how he develops.

Even with a better Adalgisa and a more balanced show, of course, Monday's repeat of this cast is very far in priority behind Friday's return of the originals. I hope you can see the latter.


  1. I have to say that I am shocked by your praise of Radvanovsky as the druid. I was very disappointed with her performance. To begin with, her refusal to use chest voice above what seems like middle C takes a great deal of authority out of her tone (especially in the opening bars of "In mia man") Also her embellishments in "Ah bello" are ridiculous and quite frankly sounded like screams on pitch. One of my biggest quips with Radvanovsky has always been her inability to articulate a pitch straight on. She always sounds like she is "swimming" in a line rather than articulating it cleanly. This always gives me the impression that she is not on pitch (flat and sharp at the same time if that is even possible?). This was my biggest issue with her Tosca, which I think is a mess as well. And then there is the fact that her voice is just plain ugly. The basic sound is unpleasant and weird. How can people say that Callas had an ugly voice when a voice like this is out there? In my opinion she is not a great Norma in fact I don't even think she's a good one.

  2. Well, yes, Radvanovsky has a vibrato-based voice that doesn't sit well with some people. If you want a pure/super-clean sound, Meade is definitely closer (or would be, if she weren't having issues). Problem is that the latter doesn't correlate well with the range of tones and emotional colorations that the dramatic coloratura rep demands and has rewarded, all the way back to Pasta herself. (By Stendhal's account -- near the end of his Rossini book -- the great original Norma and Bolena was outstanding in variety and spontaneous expressiveness of sound, with a disregard for uniformity that would make the fastidious today scream...) Actually, I've been listening to the Callas Normas too of late, and to my ears they're actually even more pronouncedly vibrato-timbred than Radvanovsky 2013... even in the good years.

    And you'll have to specify which performance you objected to, since she hasn't done the same elaborations every time.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.