NEW YORK—The act of starring at the Metropolitan Opera on the opening night of the season is one of the music world’s unofficial honors. The singer doesn’t get a statuette, but in Sondra Radvanovsky’s case, her expressive face is found on posters all around town and on the cover of the playbill for the entire opera season, not just for “Norma.” The Met’s credo is “the voice must be heard,” and Radvanovsky demonstrates again in “Norma” that she certainly possesses one of those rare voices.
Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece opened the season in a new production, directed by Sir David McVicar. While the gloomy set didn’t provide any excitement, the outstanding cast, orchestra, and chorus delivered plenty of fireworks.
The opera takes place in Gaul (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/jealousy toward Pollione and her solidarity with the lovelorn novice.
In the second act, a 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. 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.
In the playbill, McVicar explains that he studied the history of the era in which the opera takes place and found similarities between the nature-based religion of the Druids and that of the Native Americans. Thus, Norma’s abode looks like the inside of an immense teepee.
That said, the set by Robert Jones, the dim lighting by Paule Constable, and the costumes by Moritz Junge are rather drab. The opera is a tragic one, but it takes place in ancient Gaul, which is still “la belle France.” (Doesn’t the sun ever come out?)
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. What is notable here, and was not true when she performed the role several seasons ago, is that the rest of the cast is also superb.
In a bit of luxury casting, Adalgisa is played by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who generally stars in her productions. She made an especially appealing “other woman,” and her duos with Radvanovsky were sublime.
As Pollione, the two-timing Roman warrior, Joseph Calleja sang with his usual golden tone, though his acting was merely serviceable.
Bass Matthew Rose was a sonorous Oroveso, and his two arias were among the highlights of the evening.
Carlo Rizzi conducted the Met orchestra and chorus with the requisite bel canto style.
The role of Norma will be played by Marina Rebeka on Oct. 16 and 20. In December, Angela Meade and Jamie Barton will portray Norma and Adalgesa.
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 5 minutes
Closes: Dec. 16
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.