Los Angeles Opera assembled a cast of rising American stars for Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma” that met and exceeded the opera’s bel canto imperative.
Washington state soprano Angela Meade was cast as Norma, joined by Georgia mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Adalgisa, Florida tenor Russell Thomas as Pollione and Georgia basso Morris Robinson as Oroveso, each artist chosen for an opera expressly created to exemplify beautiful singing,
[Below: Norma (Angela Meade, front right) summons the Druids for a fateful admission; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Angela Meade’s Norma
Bellini’s “Norma” is one of two operas (the other being Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”) that exemplify the legendary bel canto era of Italian opera. Angela Meade has emerged as one of the 21st century’s bel canto divas.
Meade’s Norma successfully navigates one of the most difficult roles in the soprano repertory. Her extraordinary breath control is evident in the ethereal aria Casta Diva with its long Bellinian melodies.
Angela summons her technically brilliant coloratura, and her dramatic vocal intensity to display a range of emotions. These emotions range from maternal compassion to ferocious anger to desperate internal conflict in her encounters with the three principals and with the community to whom she is supposed to be a spiritual leader.
“Norma” focuses less on action than on the several emotional interchanges between its protagonist, the Druid priestess Norma; her estranged husband Pollione, whom she had secretly married; her friend Adalgisa who unknowingly is the rival for Norma’s husband; and her Druid chieftain father, Oroveso, to whom she reveals that her life as a virginal priestess is a lie.
[Below: Angela Meade as Norma; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.],
I have been fortunate to report on Angela Meade’s role debuts both in the title role of Norma in Washington D. C. [see my review at Legend Making at the Kennedy Center: Angela Meade’s First Norma – Washington National Opera, March 9, 2013] and as Matilda in Turin, Italy [Osborn, Meade and Jenis in Graham Vick’s Mounting of “Guglielmo Tell” – Teatro Regio Torino, May 7, 2014.]
While these were landmark performances. nowhere has Meade excelled above what Los Angeles audiences experienced than in Meade’s two duets with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, particularly the close harmony fireworks of Si, fino allore, allore, estreme.
[Below: Norma (Angela Meade, left) shares remembrances of a man’s attentions with Adalgisa (Jamie Barton, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Jamie Barton’s Adalgisa
Jamie Barton, like Angela Meade, has been a recipient of the prestigious annual Richard Tucker award. Her extraordinary voice has a brilliant top and strength in the lower register. It is her voice’s lower range that often brings to mind a similar feature of the great mezzo voice of Marilyn Horne, one of the previous generation’s greatest Adalgisas.
It would be difficult to imagine a wholly satisfactory performance of “Norma” without an accomplished Adalgisa. Maestro James Conlon, the conductor, refers to as the most important female role in early 19th century Italian opera not to have her own major aria, but it is how her role is constructed to interact with Norma and Pollione that makes the absence of an individual aria beside the point.
It is Adalgisa’s duets with Norma and the act-ending trio Oh non tremare, o perfido between the two women and the Pollione, the man both love, that makes Adalgisa such a significant role.
I have personally experienced such extraordinary Norma-Adalgisa pairs as Beverly Sills with Tatiana Troyanos (San Diego Opera) and Joan Sutherland with Marilyn Horne (San Francisco Opera) and believe that the Meade-Barton pairing appropriately belongs with this stellar list.
Russell Thomas’ Pollione
This was the fourth opportunity for me to review performances in which Barton is teamed with the young spinto tenor Russell Thomas [See A Second Look: “Norma” at the San Francisco Opera – September 14, 2014 and Review: Hurt, Bauer, Angeletti, Barton, Thomas in “Nabucco” – Seattle Opera, August 9, 2015
[Below: Pollione (Russell Thomas, left) insists that Adalgisa (Jamie Barton, right) return with him to Rome; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Thomas possesses a true spinto voice and uses it effectively as Pollione. His voice possesses the lyricism that enriches the first scene cavatina Meco all’altar di Venere and Pollione’s heartfelt reconciliation with Norma as both go to their deaths at opera’s end. Elsewhere, he uses his large voice effectively in the furious exchanges with Norma.
Thomas’ artistry continues to attract attention from opera managements worldwide. He is in the early stages of a major career.
[Below: Russell Thomas as Pollione; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Morris Robinson’s Oroveso
The sonorous bass voice of former football star Morris Robinson is beautifully matched with the melodious passages Bellini composed for the Druid leader Oroveso. Robinson’s Oroveso was a formidable, dramatically convincing presence.
Robinson’s career has been associated with Francesca Zambello’s immensely popular production of Joseph Kern’s and Roger Hammerstein’s classic musical Show Boat in which Robinson, as Joe, sings Ol’ Man River [See DVD Review: Francesca Zambello, the American Musical and the San Francisco Opera, Part I: “Show Boat”.]
[Below: Morris Robinson as Oroveso; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In a recent interview [Rising Stars – An Interview with Morris Robinson] described the importance of Maestro James Conlon, the evening’s conductor to his career and Conlon’s encouragement of Robinson to assay a variety of operatic styles.
I have previously reported on Conlon teaming with Robinson for Mozart [Shining L. A. Opera “Magic Flute” on Sunny Matinee Day – January 11, 2009] and Wagner [Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins L. A. “Ring” – March 11, 2009.]
James Conlon’s Conducting and Other Cast Members
Maestro James Conlon, music director of the Los Angeles Opera, has assumed the status of a major Los Angeles institution by presenting pre-opera talks for virtually all performances he conducts. [For background on how this practice evolved, see An Interview with Conductor James Conlon, Part 1 and An Interview with Conductor James Conlon, Part 2.]
Conlon is an impassioned advocate for Bellini and the music of “Norma”, whose influence on opera composers Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi (each of whom was age 20 when the opera was first performed), he demonstrated at his lecture. He also shared with his audience his belief that the cast of Meade, Barton, Thomas and Robinson was as great as cast as any company would be able to assemble.
[Below: Maestro James Conlon; edited image of a J. C. Steinberg photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
He led the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra in a spirited sinfonia that is the opera’s prelude, followed by a rousing performance that was unambiguously a labor of Conlon’s love.
Two other members of the cast, both Domingo-Coburn-Stein Young Artists, sang with distinction.
Texas Tenor Rafael Moras was the centurion Flavio (even though Pollione’s subordinate, obviously a friend and operative who helped enable Pollione’s complex double life). Mezzo-soprano Lacey Jo Benter was Clotilde, who had similar responsibilities regarding Norma (as well as being the caretaker for Norma’s and Pollione’s children).
Anne Bogart’s Production
I had written at some length about Anne Bogart’s production at the Kennedy Center (see above reference), including Neil Patel’s abstract sets and James Schuette’s imposing costumes.
[Below: Norma (Angela Meade, right) and Pollione (Russell Thomas, left) reconcile before their deaths by fire; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
In general, I find the production to be effective, it’s particular strength being its movement of principals and choristers, employing Bellini’s music advantageously. (For example, the Druids use the last section of the sinfonia to begin to move into place to hear Oroveso declaim Ite cul colle, e Druidi.)
Six priestess/dancers that have a variety of ceremonial functions and help move us from scene to the next. We are always conscious, whether Romans or Druids are onstage, that this is the borderland between two cultures, usually with a Roman in battle gear observing from the high windows of a structure at stage left.
Bogart’s direction displays a nervous energy in every encounter between Druids and Romans. She uses designer Patel’s extensively raked stage to suggest a tentativeness, reflected in choreographed movements when the outnumbered Romans venture into areas that the Druids hold.
The image of a rising moon is the dominant presence in the opera’s second act, particularly as it reddens in the final scene when Norma and Pollione go to meet their deaths by fire.
I recommend this performance and cast enthusiastically both for the veteran opera-goer and lover of great singing.