Giving voice to an age-old story Baltimore Opera Company's 'Norma' is a tragic tale of love and betrayal, as powerful for modern times as it was when Vincenzo Bellini wrote it more than a century ago.

November 08, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

A powerful ruler impaled by lust for a woman half his age. The mother of his children torn between patriotic duty and jealous rage. Political crisis, social upheaval and war, all the result of ungovernable human passions.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. This is an age-old story that history updates only in the details.

So it will be deja vu all over again Thursday, when the Baltimore Opera Company opens its second production of the season, Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma," a tragic tale of love and betrayal written in 1831 that proves the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Here is Pollione, the philandering Roman ruler of ancient Gaul, who recklessly casts aside his long-time consort, the Druid high priestess Norma, for a fetching novice who foolishly falls for his charm.

The feckless lovers are beset by unsettled times, rumors of rebellion and an explosive secret that once revealed will consume all in a conflagration of vengeance and remorse.

Bellini recounts this tale of an eternal triangle in a musical drama of endless, soaring melodies and brilliant coloratura flourishes that recall the pianistic virtuosity of his great contemporary and friend Frederic Chopin.

The role of Norma, which exemplifies the musical style known as "bel canto," or "beautiful singing," is one of the most vocally and physically taxing in the entire soprano repertory.

Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Rosa Ponselle, the legendary Metropolitan Opera Company star who founded Baltimore's opera company, are among the handful of singers in recent times who have managed to master its formidable difficulties.

The score calls for a voice - actually several different voices - of exceptional range and power. For example, in the famous aria "Casta Diva," in which Norma invokes the gods' support for her people's struggle against the Romans, the melody is one long rising arc of sound with hardly space for a breath.

Norma is at times lyrical, dramatic and tender. The actress who portrays her must remain on stage for a grueling two of the opera's 2 1/2 hours.

In the Baltimore production, the title role will be sung by Armenian-born soprano Hasmik Papian, one of the hottest new talents to emerge from the former Soviet Union in the aftermath of communism's collapse.

Papian, who has both the good looks and the huge, juicy sound needed to make the role work, has scored great success as Norma in Europe.

Baltimore Opera Company director Michael Harrison heard her there a couple of years ago and immediately signed her up.

That was probably a wise move, given that Papian now has been engaged to sing "Aida" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York next year, after which her fees will likely go through the roof.

Yet despite the almost mystical aura of diva that surrounds the great Normas past and present, Papian, who is still in her early 30s, seems refreshingly modest.

"I started out playing the violin when I was 6 years old and played it all the way through high school and conservatory," she recalled during an interview last week.

It wasn't until she was in her 20s, and already a professional violinist, that she began singing, Papian said.

"I thought I had a good voice because I could sing violin music I was studying, and also my mother had a beautiful voice," she said. "Once I decided to just go over to the voice department at the school and check with a teacher whether I really had a voice. And she said, 'You have to sing.'"

Papian soon discovered she had a great natural talent.

"It went so easily," she said, recalling that early revelation.

zTC "I had studied music for 18 years, I had a voice from God, and everything just came very quickly. Every voice has to develop step by step, of course, but there are some voices that are just naturally already there. And that was mine."

Although she realizes that studying technique is a lifelong task, and that singers never stop learning about the priceless instruments they carry around inside their bodies, Papian says she never had a moment's doubt about giving up all the years she had invested in the violin to become a singer.

"If you have a voice and musical intuition, it's a very great pleasure to sing, because it's natural," she said. "It makes you happy."

As far as the role of Norma is concerned, Papian says that although the music is extremely challenging, the character herself is readily understandable. Like Puccini's Mimi and Verdi's Violetta, whom Papian has also portrayed, she is a woman doomed by love.

"Norma is one of opera's great women because she suffers," Papain says. "She would like to be free to love and have her own happiness, but she can't because of the circumstances. And that's her tragedy."

Like the legendary Callas, whose recordings she has studied carefully, Papian believes the inner life of Norma is already mapped out in the music Bellini wrote for her.

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