|Opening night Norma, photo @ Ken Howard|
Last night was one of my personal firsts: attending an opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera: Bellini's Norma. I thought at the very least it'd be fun in a special occasion sort of way. Instead it was one of the most normal, average nights I've ever spent at the Met. It wasn't a bad performance so much as a terribly routine one.
The new production by David McVicar looked like something that was raided from old sets of Die Walkure. Norma's house looks a lot like Hunding's hut, and the centerpiece of the Druid command center was an enormous tree. I really thought Norma was going to pull a sword from the tree. The costumes by Moritz Junger were nondescript dark drapes for most everybody. It was a safe, inoffensive production for the most part, save some odd directorial choices. Why does Norma begin "Casta diva" by crawling on her hands and knees to the little treehouse platform, and why does she scurry under the tree to sing "Ah bello a mi ritorna"?
But the fault of last night's dull, unenthusiastic performance lies not with McVicar, as really, what CAN a director do with Norma? This is such a singer-centered opera. Very hard to make a regie-Norma. It was instead the flawed performances by ALL the principal singers that made this night not-so-memorable. No one's voice was working the way it needed to work to pull this opera off.
Let's start with the big one: Sondra Radvanovsky. Norma isn't a new role for her. She's sung it many times in many houses, including the Met. She was a replacement when Anna Netrebko decided "nyet" on Norma. The Russian superdiva's primo ottocento skills are suspect but she might have brought a measure of glamour to the evening.
|Sondra's Druid Priestess, photo @ Ken Howard|
|La Divina in Norma|
|DiDonato and Radvanovsky, photo @ Ken Howard|
But Joyce does so much with such a limited vocal capacity. She's an intensely musical singer who communicates with the audience in a direct, sincere way. When she sang, you knew exactly what she was singing about, what the character felt, and for once, Adalgisa's drama became more compelling than Norma's. She shaped Bellini's vocal lines beautifully -- even when she was reaching for another high note that wasn't there, you could admire the way she made you "see the music." Her diction was clear and there was always a connection to the text. So when she sang those duets with Norma it was like one side (Sondra) was garbled and mushy vocalise, and the other side (Joyce) was a lieder recital.
|Calleja as Pollione, photo @ Ken Howard|
As usual the Met's orchestra and chorus saved the day. For this production we were spared the overindulgent Marco Armiliato and/or Maurizio Benini. Carlo Rizzi led a sensitive, detailed account of the score, with the melancholy melodies taking center stage. The chorus was as always amazing.
At the end of the evening the principals got a polite if not overwhelming ovation. When the production team was brought out there were neither cheers nor boos, just silence as most people were already shuffling out of the auditorium. As I said, just business as usual at the Met. Not a very promising start to a season that seems designed to be very safe and dull.