Soprano Angela Meade’s role debut as Norma in Bellini’s opera of that name occurred in a Washington National Opera performance at the Kennedy Center.
[Below: Angela Meade as Norma; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Buttressed by the indulgent but effective conducting of Daniele Rustioni in his Washington National Opera debut, and strong casting of the lead roles of Adalgisa (Dolora Zajick) and Pollione (Rafael Davila), the night, which included the audience’s spontaneous standing ovation at opera’s end, proved to be a triumph for Meade.
Bellini’s “Norma” has from its very beginnings (well, at least from its second performance, whose enthusiasm canceled out the hard crowd at its 1831 premiere) has always had a special place in the operatic pantheon. It requires extraordinary breath control for Bellini’s languid melodies, especially Casta Diva, Bellini’s most famous composition, that some argue is the most beautiful aria in all of opera.
A Norma should not only a be able to produce a beautiful sound for these memorably lyrical moments, but also must be able to display vocally a full range of emotions, and to believably project Norma’s shifting moods of hatred and vengeance, empathy, maternal love, jealousy, anguish, self-doubt, resignation, forgiveness, and inner peace.
Angela Meade accomplished this feat with such skill that one can predict that she will become recognized immediately as one of the 21st century’s great Normas.
Dolora Zajick’s Adalgisa and Rafael Davila’s Pollione
A great Norma’s performance is diminished if she is not surrounded by cast members that are as effective in their roles as she is in hers. The Washington National Opera’s casting of the great dramatic mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Norma’s rival, Adalgisa, assured that the two powerful scenes between the two women, with their extensive passages of bravura singing in close harmony, would prove to be a memorable experience for those fortunate to have been in the audience.
[Below: Pollione (Rafael Davila, left) discovers he can't take Adalgisa (Dolora Zajick, right) for granted; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Excellent also was the Pollione, Puerto Rican tenor, Rafael Davila, whose dramatic tenor matched the power of his co-stars, Meade and Zajick.)
Davila made a strong impression as Pollione - a role that must project ardent desire and anger, and then, within in a few moments, believably show such remorse for his having done Norma wrong, that he submits willingly to joining her in death by fire.
Daniele Rustioni’s Conducting
I had praised the performance’s young conductor, Daniele Rustioni, for his appearance at the Glimmerglass Festival [See Alexandra Deshorties Commanding in Cherubini’s “Medea” – Glimmerglass Opera, August 14, 2011].
[Below: Conductor Daniele Rustioni; resized image of a production photograph.]
Rustioni conducted the overture vigorously. The performance was fast-paced in the many ceremonial scenes, but also indulged the singers – allowing Zajick at one point to hold a note for an astonishingly long time – without Rustioni ever losing control of the situation.
Russian basso Dmitry Belosselskiy was a sympathetic Oroveso, Chilean tenor Mauricio Miranda was Flavio and American mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer was Clotilde.
The New Production
Creating a new production for the Washington National Opera was American stage director Anne Bogart, on whose work I have reported previously [See Costa-Jackson, Diegel, Matanovic and Simmons Excel in Glimmerglass Opera’s “Carmen” – August 13, 2011.]
Utlizing a unit set designed by her frequent collaborator Neil Patel, she emphasized the whiteness of moonlight. White vertical boards, randomly distributed at stage right, hinted at the Druid forest in which Norma’s ceremonies take place.
For the change of scene specified in Felice Romani’s libretto – Norma’s household where Clotilde cares for the children she bore of Pollione – a white drapery descends from above.
[Below: A view of the unit set for "Norma" through which Adalgisa (Dolora Zajick) wanders; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
At stage left a towering structure represents the Roman suzerainty over the obviously not completely conquered province of Gaul. Out of the structure’s top floor a Roman watches over the scene. (In my only substantive criticism of Patel’s sets, the effectiveness of the image was compromised because the structure was so positioned that those sitting on the right side of the audience could not see the watchful Roman.)
A circular depression at the center of the stage functions in part as a ceremonial altar and, when required by the plot, as Norma’s household.
Six dancers (whom I have named the Ceremonial Six) appear at various times to engage in the various incantations to the God Irminsul. But they have other functions as well, including assisting with scene changes, rather like the koken of classical Japanese theater, except that they are always meant to be present, rather than invisible.
The costumes by James Schuette conformed to our image of ancient barbarians. Stage director Bogart introduced the audience to them by having the chorus, costumed as Druids, arrive from the entrances on each side of the opera house and in single file meet on stage for their melodic invocation.
[Below: Dmitri Belosselskiy as Oroveso; edited image, based on a Scott Suchman photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]
Reflections on Bellini and “Norma”
One of my earliest essays on this website was on the dramatic coherence of Felice Romani’s libretto for “Norma”, so enhanced by the powerful music written by Vincenzo Bellini [see The Pollione-Norma Backstory: How to Make Sense Out of Bellini’s ‘Norma’.]
This is the third Bellini work from those magical years of 1830 and 1831 that I have seen masterfully performed in the past five months, having also reviewed “Capuleti” in San Francisco [see Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell Sing Beautifully in Bellini’s Bel Canto “Capulets and Montagues” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2012 and A Second Look: “Capulets and Montagues” at San Francisco Opera, October 14, 2012] and “Sonnambula” in Miami [see “Sonnambula” Reawakened: Rachele Gilmore’s, Michele Angelini’s Artistry, Vocal Fireworks Enliven Bellini’s Masterpiece – Florida Grand Opera, February 9, 2013], each with strong casts in 21st century productions.
I have been fortunate to see many of the greatest Normas and Adalgisas of the past four decades, including such luminaries as Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, Beverly Sills and Tatiana Troyanos, Rita Hunter, Christina Deutekom and Shirley Verrett. Yet I believe my experiences of these last few weeks with Bellini performances in San Francisco, Miami and Washington DC suggest that Bellini’s operas are being performed in the United States at unparalleled levels of quality and competence.
I believe that the Kennedy Center audience was treated to as spectacular an evening as I have been privileged to see, with the additional advantage of having all three of the principal roles beautifully sung.
I recommend this cast and production unreservedly.
For my previous reviews of Dolora Zajick performances, see: Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011, and also,
For my review of a performance that I found less satisfactory, see: Norma November 21, 2005 San Francisco.