Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: The Dallas Opera’s “Norma” – Vocally Outstanding, Dramatically Persuasive, April 21, 2017

April 23rd, 2017

The Dallas Opera presented a theatrically valid production of Bellini’s “Norma”, passionately conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume.

Elza van den Heever’s Norma

South African soprano Elza van den Heever returned to Dallas, where she had previously excelled in Mozart, as an international star of the highest rank.

Van den Heever brought her star qualities to the role of the Druid priestess Norma, which is considered more challenging than virtually any other in the operatic repertory. Her vocally strong performance was in the great tradition of this demanding role.

Her delivery of the great aria Casta diva was beautifully sung.  She displayed the range of the character’s strong emotions, both through extraordinary vocal control and acting skill.

[Below: Elza van den Heever as Norma; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

As important as Norma’s solo arias are Norma’s duets and her trio with the characters of Pollione, her estranged husband and Adalgisa, Pollione’s new love. These ensembles place extraordinary demands on the singers, which Van den Heever and her colleagues performed with obvious virtuosity.

[Below: Norma (Elza van den Heever, top left) reveals to Adalgisa (Marina Costa-Jackson, right) that she has secretly borne two children; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

I have been fortunate to have reviewed van den Heever performances since her early career (see, for example, Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007 and Handel’s “Rinaldo” in Chicago: Francisco Negrin’s Finely Sung, Fun-filled Fantasy – Lyric Opera, March 16, 2012. For my review of her previous appearance at The Dallas Opera see Bel Canto “Cosi fan Tutte” at Dallas Opera – February 18, 2010].

Yonghoon Lee’s Pollione

South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee is one of the finest of the world’s contemporary spinto tenors. Lee gave a robust, vocally secure performance as Norma’s estranged husband, the Roman proconsul Pollione. Hearing the role of Pollione sung with a voice with Lee’s power and vocal expressiveness is revelatory.

[Below: Yonghoon Lee as Pollione; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Lee’s characterization defined both the character’s ferocity and his ultimate realization of his innate feelings for Norma as they faced death by fire together. Lee proved to be an engaging actor, his Pollione a fully realized character.

[Below: Flavio (Charles Karanja, right) cautions Pollione (Yonghoon Lee, left) to be careful behind the enemy lines; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

I have been impressed by Yonghoon Lee’s large voice, which has the power for such weighty roles as Calaf [Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012 ], Manrico [Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014] and Andrea Chenier [True Verismo: Nello Santi Conducts Yonghoon Lee, Martina Serafin, Lucio Gallo in “Andrea Chénier” – Zurich Opera, May 4, 2014  and Review: Yonghoon Lee is an Eloquent Andrea Chénier in McVicar’s Cinematic Staging – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2016.]

Marina Costa-Jackson’s Adalgisa

Marina Costa-Jackson proved to be a glorious-voiced Adalgisa. She was hauntingly beautiful in the passages that begin  Mira, a Norma, the most famous of Adalgisa’s great duets with Norma.

[Below: Marina Costa-Jackson as Adalgisa; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Costa-Jackson perfectly matched Elza van den Heever’s vocal fireworks in their duet’s treacherous cabaletta Si, fino allore, allure estreme.

[Below: When the druids capture Pollione (Yonghoon Lee, front left, in military uniform), Norma (Elza van den Heever, center, head cloaked in red scarf) requires Adalgisa (Marina Costa-Jackson, left center, in white, kneeling) to place herself among the priestesses from whom a sacrifice victim is to be selected; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Christian Van Horn’s Oroveso, other cast members and the musical performance

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn gave a solid performance as Norma’s father and Druid patriarch, Oroveso.

The opera’s two comprimario artists were both convincing in small roles that advance the plot. American soprano Mithra Mastropierro was Clotilde, the guardian of Norma’s children. Kenyan tenor Charles Karanja was Flavio, Pollione’s subordinate and confidante.

The Dallas Opera Chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Alexander Rom, and The Dallas Opera Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, both performed with distinction.

[Below: the Druid leader Oroveso (Christian Van Horn, standing center) prepares his men for the expected battle with the Roman army; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Director Nicholas (Nic) Muni’s Production and John Conklin’s sets

I had previously reported on the revival of a production by Director Nicholas Muni [Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015], whose dramatic content was derived from Muni’s insightful thoughts on the psychological and social background of its characters.

Muni’s “Norma” production dates from Seattle Opera’s 1994 season, and later revived at the Los Angeles Opera, Cincinnati Opera and Florida Grand Opera. Its central premise is that Druids and Romans lived in close proximity to each other and, although generally hostile to one another, interacted in various ways.

The production’s unit set is by John Conklin. Norma resides in a stone Druid temple at stage left, with remnants of  buildings destroyed by war scattered about and evidence that the Roman army is located close by.

[Below: The final scene of “Norma”; edited image of a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Although these characters are fictional and I always counsel against trying to learn history from operatic plots, it is now accepted that Druid Gauls and Romans indeed co-existed over several centuries.

I had in a previous essay commented on Bellini’s ultimate power couple The Pollione-Norma Backstory: the Dramatic Logic of Bellini’s ‘Norma’, whose storyline I believe has a degree of plausibility. Nicholas Muni’s production reinforces my belief that the opera makes more sense than some writers would concede.

Muni’s conceptualization provides the character of Pollione with a more substantive presence in the opera, appearing in several scenes (although mute) that neither the opera’s composer nor librettist would have imagined. These appearances suggest that Pollione and Norma – although emotionally estranged from one another – continue to relate to each other through their two children. Neither Norma nor her maid Clotilde seem surprised when Pollione and Flavio arrive to allow Pollione some time with his kids.

Ingeniously, Pollione’s appearances and disappearances seem perfectly timed to the emotions that Norma and Adalgisa display. We are not surprised at all when Pollione turns up just in time for the three-way confrontation between himself Norma and Adalgisa. (I was less convinced by an early scene where Pollione non-textually dares Oroveso to stab him.)

Like Pollione, in this staging Adalgisa appears in more scenes than the opera calls for, including a ritual suicide at opera’s end, that appears consistent with what is now believed to have been Druid practices.

Recommendation

I recommend the cast and production enthusiastically both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera and suggest that lovers of well-sung bel canto opera in engaging productions make a special effort to get to the remaining performances.

 

For my interviews with Elza van den Heever, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part I and Rising Stars: an Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part II.

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