Baltimore Opera's 'Norma' is of note

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Poor stage direction can't take away from the beautiful singing

November 20, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

The future of the Baltimore Opera Company may be cloudy - it has a severe cash-flow problem, uncertain prospects for long-term fundraising, recent administrative changes - but the present sure sounds great. The production of Bellini's Norma that opened last weekend is one of the most musically satisfying ventures I've heard from the company yet (theatrically speaking, it's another story entirely).

The singers reveal an abundant appreciation for the style known as bel canto - literally "beautiful singing," although the expression encompasses more than that. And there is no better example of a bel canto opera than Norma, with its wonderfully high-caloric melodies that float in elegant arcs above disarmingly simple chord progressions and mostly understated orchestration.

Although the plot about ancient Druids and Romans - more of a Greek tragedy, really - may not strike some audiences today as particularly gripping or even involving, it has the stuff of profound drama in it. And Bellini's way of fusing exquisite music to the core issues of that drama elevates the whole thing.

Not every moment in the score may be gold, but the few weak spots are easily forgiven in light of so many elegantly spun vocal lines. It's no wonder that in the 19th century, even such unlikely types as Wagner revered this work, or that it revealed fresh hypnotic power midway through the 20th century when Maria Callas unearthed so much extra depth in the title role of the Druid priestess who strays from her vows.

Hasmik Papian will not erase anyone's memories of Callas or some other celebrated Normas. On Saturday night at the Lyric, some of the soprano's singing was cautious, especially when it involved coloratura flights, and top notes were not always supported. A lack of distinctive tonal shading limited her account of the opera's famous aria, Casta diva, though she ended it with great tenderness.

That said, Papian attacked the notoriously tough assignment with dignity and taste. At her best, she produced a warm, attractive sound, and her phrasing could be quite vivid. That was particularly so 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 Roman proconsul Pollione.

Ruth Ann Swenson, a seasoned and much-admired soprano, has been cast as Adalgisa, a no-longer-quite-so-virginal temple virgin who shares Norma's disastrous taste in Roman lovers. Adalgisa 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 can work beautifully, as it did here.

Swenson was in marvelous form opening night, such an instantly galvanizing presence that the audience applauded her opening, extended 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. In Act 1, for example, during the scene where Adalgisa innocently describes to Norma the man she has fallen in love with, Swenson's melting phrases captured the character's lyrical heart to extraordinary effect. There was much deftly colored vocalism as well in the famous Mira, a Norma duet of Act 2.

Whenever Swenson was onstage, it was simply impossible to take one's ears off of her. A very classy performance.

Frank Porretta also commanded attention as Pollione. The tenor produced a huge sound that easily filled the voice-friendly acoustic of the theater. 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.

As Oroveso, Norma's father and Druid elder, Hao Jiang Tian sang with admirable smoothness and solidity of tone and molded his phrases eloquently. Nicole Biondo sounded effortful as Norma's confidant, Clotilde, but she had her emotional effectiveness. Farrar Strum delivered his few lines as Flavio in a warm, clear, dynamic tenor. Chorus and orchestra met their musical challenges with mostly potent, cohesive results.

The conductor, Christian Badea, took generally spacious tempos that allowed the opera's most poetic tunes to blossom, but he also fired up the opera's few agitated passages forcefully. His belief in the value of the score could be felt at every turn. I only wish he had honored an old tradition of varying the tempo during the animated Si, fino all'ore portion of the Act 2 Norma/Adalgisa duet; that sort of rhythmic fluctuation was once a valued characteristic of bel canto style.

The production, with scenic design by Roberto Oswald and costumes by Anibal Lapiz, is mostly an understated study in black and white (Norma's donning of a blood-red cape for the finale provides a welcome jolt). Benjamin Pearcy's subtle lighting enhanced the minimal surroundings considerably.

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