The future of the Baltimore Opera Company may be cloudy, but the present sure sounds great. The production of Bellini's Norma that opened last night is one of the most musically satisfying ventures I've heard from the company yet. It's not so much a case of each of the principals being ideal, as it is of each one bringing to this melodically high-calorie score a fundamental appreciation for the bel canto style (Bellini really put the bel in bel canto with this work). A couple of the soloists also manage to summon a striking amount of vocal fire power to go with all of that sensitivity to the opera's musical curves.
Hasmik Papian will not erase memories of Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland or Montserrat Caballe in the title role of the Druid priestess, but her performance last night ....
had a good deal to recommend it. The soprano's tone proved basically warm and attractive, if lacking in distinctive shading, and her phrasing was often vivid, particularly in the chilling start of Act 2, when Norma comes close to murdering her own children out of despair for losing the love of their father. The famous entrance aria, Casta Diva
, sounded a little cautious, but it was capped by an eloquent cadenza. Only when Papian smudged the articulation of coloratura flurries, or weakened on high notes, or missed some opportunities to bring out subtleties of the text did I wish they could've casta 'nother diva. But this is a notoriously tough role, and Papian got the job done with dignity and taste.
The role of Norma's conflicted friend, Adalgisa, who has the same tragic taste in Roman lovers, has been taken here by Ruth Ann Swenson, a seasoned and much-admired soprano. The part is normally sung by mezzos today, but the distinction between the voice types was not so clear-cut in Bellini's day, and the blend of two sopranos works beautifully. Swenson was in marvelous voice last night. She was such an instantly galvanizing presence that the audience applauded her opening recitative (Adalgisa doesn't get a full-fledged aria in this opera). The tone was creamy, the intonation spot-on, the phrasing full of import. The soprano ensured that every word registered meaningfully. One melting example came in Act 1 at the line Un altro cielo mirar creditti, un altro cielo in lui (I seemed to find another heaven in him); Swenson phrased it in a truly ethereal manner. Likewise, she sculpted her phrases eloquently throughout the great Mira, a Norma duet. It was impossible to take one's ears off of Swenson. A very classy performance.
Frank Porretta also commanded attention as Pollione, the Roman with the bad habit of leading religious Druid women astray. The tenor produced a huge sound that easily filled the voice-friendly acoustic of the Lyric. Nuance didn’t come as easily to him as volume, but no matter. The weight of the vocalism, and the incisive thrust of Porretta's phrasing, hit the spot. Hao Jiang Tian sang with grave beauty as Norma's father, Oroveso. Nicole Biondo, as Clotilde, sounded effortful, but she had her emotional effectiveness. Farrar Strum delivered his few lines as Flavio in a warm, clear, dynamic tenor. Chorus and orchestra rose to their challenges with mostly potent results. Christian Badea's conducting was wonderfully spacious (some might just call it slow, but Bellini's poetic melodies can take it), but he offered plenty of rhythmic force in the opera's few agitated passages. I only wish he had allowed for tempo variations in the animated Si, fino all'ore close of the Act 2 Norma/Adalgisa duet; there's an old tradition of stretching things here, and I'm convinced it pays off handsomely.
As for the visual side of things, the mostly black and white look of the scenic design by Roberto Oswald and costumes by Anibal Lapiz got the job done, sometimes quite tellingly. But Oswald also served as director, and, just as with his Nabucco for Baltimore a couple years ago, came up very short. Once again, he had choristers parade on the stage and, having found the right 'x' on the floor, assume the oratorio position and hold it until required to parade back off the stage. It's an insult to call this sort of by-the-number crowd placement 'stage direction.' This might have been good enough in 1831, when Norma was premiered at La Scala, but it looks pathetic today. Oswald was marginally better in his approach to the principal characters, but they, too, could have used more imaginative guidance. That said, most of the singing is so alive and compelling that the whole production gets a lift.
Photo courtesy Baltimore Opera Company; Michael DeFilippi photographer.