A shining production of Bellini's `Norma'

Washington Opera strikes gold with Papian in title role

MusicReview

October 09, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With perfect timing, the moon rose over Constitution Hall Tuesday night as patrons arrived to hear a performance of an opera most famous for its exquisite prayer to a "chaste" and "unveiled" lunar goddess. The sight of that silvery moon turned out to be a good omen.

Bellini's Norma, one of the masterpieces of the Italian style known as bel canto, is notoriously difficult to stage, primarily because of the technical and interpretive demands it makes on the soprano in the title role. Everyone in the cast, for that matter, must cope with Bellini's eloquent, Chopin-esque melodies, and must also find a way to infuse both music and plot with emotional truths. Washington Opera's new production succeeds admirably, at least where it counts most.

Let's face it. Norma rises or sinks on the strength of its Norma. As the Druid priestess who forgets her sacred vows and takes up with, of all people, a Roman occupier, Norma presents the off-kilter moral center of the opera. She must convince us that she is, at heart, a decent woman and, in the end, a noble one. We can only believe in her if her voice can grab us as firmly as it locks onto Bellini's vocal lines. And if she can win us over right at the start with that plea to the moon, Casta diva.

Many's the soprano who has been so defeated by the long, arcing phrases of that aria that we're left wishing that the producers had casta 'nother diva. But in Hasmik Papian, Washington Opera has struck gold. From the first notes of her entrance scene on Tuesday, the singer staked her claim on the role and the score.

Papian may not have offered the ultimate in interpretive personality, and a few top notes may have lacked support, but this was still very accomplished work. Intensified by a darkly burnished low register, her voice commanded attention, while her phrasing caught the music's beauty and drama in roughly equal proportions. I do wish she had made more of the potentially electrifying line in the finale when she admits her guilt to her fellow Druids, but she achieved remarkable poignancy in the rest of that scene.

When she starred in Baltimore Opera's 1998 production of the piece, Irina Mishura was Norma's fellow fallen virgin, Adalgisa. The same mezzo is again starring opposite Papian. She brought considerable vocal force, if not always warmth of tone, to the assignment. The splendid Mira, o Norma duet calls for a sweeter and more carefully coordinated blend than this duo mustered, but that proved a minor disappointment.

Richard Margison used his robust, often artfully shaded tenor tellingly in the role of Pollione, the Roman proconsul with an eye for would-be vestals. As Norma's father, Oroveso, Kyle Ketelson filled the hall with his rock-solid, gorgeously nuanced bass-baritone. Israel Lozano (Flavio) and Keri Alkema (Clotilde) reconfirmed that there are no small roles, only small voices; theirs had bloom and expressive underpinning.

Excellent choral contributions, a mostly well-disciplined orchestra and Emmanuel Villaume's sensitive shaping of the score completed the aural assets. The conductor did not always keep the performance on track - it's awfully tricky in this hall, with the orchestra stuck behind the stage - but derailments were brief. (The company moves back, none too soon, into the renovated Kennedy Center Opera House in March.)

Paolo Micciche, who designed and directed last season's Aida at Constitution Hall, essentially reapplied the same treatment here - a rather bare stage given visual life by lots of swirly projections onto various fabrics; lots of attractive period costumes; and lots of cliched operatic acting. His way of moving people around, especially for the choral scenes, had a dull, formulaic look (Norma made a few too many entrances atop the platform that stretched across the length of the stage).

In the end, the direction and the visuals did the job well enough. But it was the vividness of the music-making that made Norma's indelible spin on the ageless human conflict between love and duty spring to life.

Norma

Where: DAR Constitution Hall, 18th and C streets Northwest, Washington

When: 7:30 tonight, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15, 7 p.m. Oct 18 and 20

Tickets: $41 to $285

Call: 202-432-7328

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