Richard, Barbara, and I saw *Norma* at the Met on 10/11/17. This was our first show of the season, we'll be seeing a few things there this year. It was a new production of the old warhorse Bellini opera. The director was David McVicar, one of the Met's most dependable directors - - we're seen his *Trovatore,* the *Cavalleria Rusticana* and *I Pagliacci* double bill, and his three Donizetti Tudor queens (*Anna Bolena,* *Maria Stuarda,* and *Roberto Devereux*). He's imaginative but never goofy or gratuitous. He puts the opera on the stage, he doesn't let his own cleverness get in the way.
Things got off to a fine start, the orchestra sounded crisp and full of color under conductor Carlo Rizzi. The opera opens with the chorus and some secondary character setting the story in motion, a soapy bit of drivel about the Druids and the Romans. Then the tenor came on for his first scene. My dentist had raved about this guy, Joseph Calleja, he thinks he's the second coming of Pavarotti. Well, my dentist must have heard Pavarotti on an off night - - I thought Calleja was good but not great. The voice itself is pleasant and distinctive, it's a full, juicy voice but with a quick vibrato, and interesting mix of macho and vulnerable. The high C in his opening aria was secure but not what I would call attractive. He raised a big red flag at the end of this aria: it's in the key of E flat (don't be too impressed, I looked that up online) and his high note at the end was a good solid A natural. Probably the wrongest wrong note he could sing. I wondered whether he was supposed to sing a B flat and he was flat, or he was supposed to sing an A flat and he was sharp. It's an A flat in the score, but it sure was an A natural that we heard. That was his only big gaffe, but you know they say you only have one chance to make a first impression.
Norma made her entrance in the next scene. She's a Druid priestess, she's supposed to be a virgin but has been carrying on with the tenor and (gasp) has had TWO kids with him. Her junior priestess, mezzo Adalgisa, has just started taking up with the tenor, but Norma doesn't know that yet. Anyway, back to Norma's entrance aria. The recitative goes on for quite a while, and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sang it with lots of drama and Italian flavor. She reminded me just a bit of the late great Turikish soprano Leyla Gencer - - she was gulping like Gencer did, but thankfully stopped short of gurgling (Gencer sang with great conviction but not always the best taste). Radvanovsky's gulping was completely in the style. She finished the recit and launched into the aria, "Casta diva," one of opera's most ravishing and heavenly melodies. Radvanovsky sounded great, but I felt like she was inflecting the line a little too much. I wanted more calm, a smoother emission of the voice. This is highly subjective, of course. The agitated section at the end of the aria was more her thing, she sounded great in that. And the lyrical sections of the rest of the role were great, it's just this iconic opening aria that bothered me.
McVicar did something interesting with the staging: usually Adalgisa (the mezzo, the junior priestess) doesn't make her entrance until the next scene, when she sings her first aria. McVicar had Adalgisa onstage with Norma during "Casta diva," lying next to her and holding her hand. It was touching and showed them to be simpatico, a real team. This made the betrayal later in the opera a bigger deal.
Joyce DiDonato played Adalgisa. I've liked her better in other roles - - she was gulping, too, but it didn't sound as good when she did it. Loved her pixie hairdo, I wonder if that was her own hair.
I can't remember whether it was in the first act duet with Norma or the second act duet, but the two of them had a very long a cappella cadenza, and when the orchestra came in on their last held note, they had to adjust, they were a quarter step flat. Come ON.
I don't really know this opera, I'd only seen it once before, and I was surprised to hear so much foreshadowing of Verdi - - and not early Verdi, the period just after *Norma,* but middle Verdi, twenty years after *Norma.* I was reminded of *Rigoletto,* *Aida,* and *Trovatore.* Maybe I need to listen to more Bellini, I liked this more than I thought I would. Gorgeous music.
One last note, another chance to say "Come ON." The scene changed from the forest to Norma's tent halfway through the first half. They made the change by having the floor rise up about twenty feet to reveal the new set, and the forest above receded away. And the audience applauded. Is this really so impressive?