Opera Review: ‘Norma’

October 17, 2013 3:46 am Last Updated: October 17, 2013 3:47 am

NEW YORK—During the intermission at “Eugene Onegin,” a group seated in front of me was discussing “Norma,” which had premiered earlier in the week. “Did you see Sondra Radvanovsky?” one of them asked. “Yes, she was amazing,” another replied. After catching a subsequent performance of “Norma” at the Metropolitan Opera, I concur with the assessment. Radvanovsky, the Illinois-born soprano, who has starred in mostly Verdi and Puccini roles at the Met and is singing her first bel canto role at the house, gives an electrifying performance.

Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” is a part that requires (but doesn’t always receive) a soprano with vast technical and dramatic skills. Some famous interpreters of the role have been Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Zinka Milanov, and Joan Sutherland.

On a controversial new recording, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, using a new critical edition of the opera, performs the role with period instruments while a soprano plays the role of Adalgisa.

The Met adheres to the traditional version with the usual soprano and mezzo combination. It still clicks with the right performers.

The opera takes place in Gaul (modern-day France) when it was occupied by Rome in 50 B.C. Norma (the high priestess of the Druids) is in love with the Roman proconsul Pollione. He fathered the two children she has been raising in secret.

However, when the action begins, he has already shifted his attentions to Adalgisa, a novice priestess. Norma prays to the chaste goddess of the moon (“Casta diva”), but performs a military role in addition to her religious duties. She promises to lead a revolt against the Romans but holds back because she is concerned about Pollione. Meanwhile, he begs Adalgisa to run off to Rome with him.

Adalgisa confides to Norma that she is considering breaking her vows for her lover. Norma is supportive until she discovers the man is Pollione, whereupon she flies into a rage.

Adalgisa then refuses the proconsul’s entreaties because of loyalty to her friend. Thus, the opera moves back and forth between Norma’s love and jealousy toward Pollione and her solidarity with the lovelorn novice.

In the second act, distraught Norma considers murdering her children but then asks Adalgisa to reconcile with Pollione and take Norma’s children to Rome. The novice refuses and the women swear solidarity with each other.

Adalgisa says she will urge Pollione to go back to Norma. But when the high priestess hears that Pollione still rejects her, she foments an attack on the Romans. The proconsul is captured and Norma offers him freedom if he will reconcile with her but he refuses.

Norma proclaims that a guilty priestess must be sacrificed and confesses that she is the one who must die. Pollione, for the first time, acts nobly and decides to join her in being burned alive. Norma asks her father, Oroveso (the high priest), to take care of her children.

As expected, Radvanovsky brought the house down with her rendition of the famous aria “Casta diva” in the first act and maintained the high standard throughout. No one else on stage quite matched her.

As Adalgisa, mezzo Kate Aldrich blended well in her duos with Radvanovsky but the combination lacked the electricity of the Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne recording of “Norma,” admittedly a high bar to overcome.

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (Pollione) has a fiery style and hits ringing high notes but is somewhat more convincing as a soldier than a lover. James Morris’s Oroveso was solid, though his voice has become rather dry.

Riccardo Frizza conducted well and the chorus was excellent, as usual. John Copley’s production with sets and costumes by John Conklin didn’t add much. Nevertheless, with Radvanovsky on stage, the audience was thrilled to attend the performance.

“Norma” continues through Nov. 1 at the Met (metoperafamily.org.), with Angela Meade playing the title role at some performances.