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November 16, 2008

Vocal power and style fuel Baltimore Opera's 'Norma'


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.

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:19 PM | | Comments (4)


I am wondering why Peabody doesn't get the publicity a high profile conservatory could get. This is the first conservatory in the United States, conceived with the support of one of the legendary conservatories of the world in St. Petersburg and which has produced spectacular musicians as well as attracted an amazing faculty. Students are passionate and not concerned with the politics which seem to seep into and dominate professional music today. Peabody's concerts are interestingly programmed, full of young vigor, and an excellent evening out from the casual concert-goer to the most strict and critical classical lovers. I mean, it's ridiculous how little press Peabody receives. Even though many large concerts are sold out without advertising in large media, the lack of respect and excitement Baltimore generates for this place is sad. I think it is the responsibility of many in the media to guide the viewers eye when they notice something is significantly undervalued. The program is maybe second or third in the nation overall, and the performances put on by these remarkably talented kids are sometimes more interesting, passionate and resonating than those put on by many professional orchestras and groups. I hope people start fully taking advantage of the high caliber of our future musicians studying right here in our backyards. Peabody is constantly struggling to make ends meet. Despite administrative cutbacks and pressures, the students and faculty continue to work together to generate world-class music. It's time people start talking about the Peabody and generating buzz. This is not just a Baltimore landmark, but a piece of American history. We must support the arts in our city if we will see ourselves as a cultured and intellectual society. This is a form of expression unlike any other, and unique in the way it is presented. If only every city could be so lucky....

Since you posted this on my Baltimore Opera review, let me hasten to mention that I'll be at Peabody Opera Theater's production of Janacek's 'Cunning Little Vixen'
this week. I encourage everyone to check it out, too. You're right: Peabody doesn't always get the attention or respect it deserves. (The same has often been said of Baltimore itself.) For what it's worth, I must point that there's only so much activity that one critic can write about. But I enjoy Peabody's programming and the quality I've heard at many performances there. I wish the words I've written about those performances over the years would have spurred more people to explore the activity. And I hope that your passion about the place will be contagious. -- Tim

Ditto re the Peabody. I've heard many fine concerts and opera performances there. I'll never forget the Falstaff which I saw twice in one weekend a couple of years ago. Also, Griswold Hall upstairs is one of the most beautiful concert locations in the area. (And I enjoyed reading this Baltimore Opera review!)

IT is a shame that the Baltimore Opera Company has seen too much over-indulgent upper management over thas past years. Orchestra negotiators are told they have no money, while the General Director lives in splendour in Homeland, drives a Mercedes, sends his son to private schools, and jets hither and thither on the company's credit card.

In spite of the company propaganda you seem to have swallowed, or whatever "private" information you think you have got from "company executives," the company is going into bankruptcy.

Why should I "swallow" everything you say? People who know everything ought to be willing to be step right up publicly and tell all, for attribution, don't you think? It sure would make my job a lot easier. And do you really think the company's financial woes would magically have disappeared if only they had spread the wealth around inside the organization? A glance at the company's IRS forms, which typically don't qualify as "propaganda," might lead you to a slightly different conclusion.--TIM

I told you so!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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