Your fearless reporter has once again traveled far and wide in order to bring you, his adoring public, news about opera goings-on outside of the Tri-State Area. The reason was Norma, Mr. Bellini's major work, which the Washington National Opera so bravely mounted at The Kennedy Center. I say bravely because the work is quite difficult to cast and produce. There are many sopranos who are hired to sing Norma repeatedly, but I don't call that good judgement in every case. It is extremely rare in my experience to find a woman who sings both Turandot and Norma very well, especially if there is a little-black-dress component in the casting requirements. But opera companies seem determined to keep trying with that formula in mind.
I saw the final performance at WNO, the matinee on March 24. I liked the casting. Starting at the bottom, I must say Dmitry Belosselskiy was a very satisfying Oroveso. His sonorous bass filled the hall as he represented his people's pleas to get those darn Romans out of Gaul or die trying. His aria with chorus "Ah del Tebro al giogo indegno" was very fine indeed. Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila sang Pollione. I had been concerned about this casting choice, having seen YouTube clips indicating a blustery sound typical of today's Verdi tenors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mr. Davila unleashed the role's few isolated high notes remarkably well, and negotiated the high tessitura more capably than I expected him to. He did seem to grow tired in the second act, but most Polliones do. Had I not seen Act II, I would have described his acting as typically stentorian, but his passion in the electrifying Act II finale convinced me otherwise.
Dolora Zajick. The Azucena/Amneris/Eboli of our age. Other writers have called Ms. Zajick a force of nature, and I can't argue. Some of her singing on Sunday afternoon was almost unnaturally beautiful and affecting. In duets and trios where Angela Meade chose to float the climactic high notes Ms. Zajick was there, matching the floating quality beautifully. Adalgisa is the biggest loser in this story, and Ms. Zajick's anguish was very clear in the rear orchestra section. (Roman Consul Pollione had already married and deserted Norma before seducing poor Adalgisa, but when Adalgisa learns Pollione is also Norma's man and the father of her children, she sees him for the scoundrel he is. One wonders how many other girls Pollione had seduced between Norma and Adalgisa, but that's not part of the opera.) Although it did take her a short time to warm up again for Act II, her scene with Norma that ends with the famous duet "Mira, O Norma" was quite amazing.
Readers might also recall my post "Wanted -- One Sassy Gay Friend", about seeing Angela Meade sing Norma, daughter of Oroveso and Chief High Priestess Babe, at Caramoor in 2010. I have very few complaints about Miss Meade's singing on Sunday, although I will say her sound has grown in color and richness with time. I've stated before that I'm not convinced her voice is as large as some of the roles in which she is cast. I have noticed in recent years that she has developed an apparent coping mechanism wherein she floats some of the most difficult high notes, when one fears singing them with full voice would not produce a successful result. This doesn't happen on all high notes, and in fact, Miss Meade sang some full-throated high notes that were stunning. One feared on Sunday Miss Meade was also quite tired, that being the final performance of a demanding production. But--and I can't emphasize enough the importance of this--she husbanded her resources remarkably well, emitted not a single sound that was not beautiful on its own. (OK, maybe one or two, but who's counting?) She used those floated high notes to beautiful effect in passages that have proven the undoing of many a soprano. She even sang a full-throated high D at the end of the Act I finale. Her sustained "Son io!," confessing in the Act II finale that she herself is the accursed fallen priestess, seduced by a Roman, made me cry.
Let's talk about that Act II finale. From the end of the chorus "Guerra! Guerra!" and "Hymn to the Sun" to the final double bar, I was captivated. All of Mr. Bellini's amazing music and Mr. Felice Romani's skillful writing had been merely preparation for this sequence of one amazing passage after another. The duet "In mia man" in which Norma confronts Pollione, who had been captured while attempting to abduct Adalgisa, was riveting. "Son io!", as I've mentioned, really did make me cry. At the end of the finale, when Norma at last convinces her father Oroveso to look after her children after she has been put to death for her sins, brought many more tears. This was the kind of gripping operatic experience that causes people to leap to their feet and shout Bravo!
I credit Messrs. Bellini and Romani for this. I don't credit the stage director, Anne Bogart, with much of anything except traffic control, although some of those directions I found odd. Some stage bits were almost laughable, such as the very end of the Act I finale, when Norma, Adalgisa, and Pollione are singing their little hearts out, and pause upon hearing the offstage chorus in an uproar, each turning his/her head in the same direction and then turning back to face the audience and conductor and finish the last few bars, timed as well as if they were aspiring Pips. I'm not completely sold on the design by Neil Patel. The set was a unit set showing in a somewhat heavy-handed way the contrast between the Druids, with a full-height slatted wooden building on one side, with huge logs or tree trunks leaning against the building like toothpicks, and a heavy stone Roman building on another, where one occasionally espied a Roman sentry keeping watch from elevated window openings. Costumes by James Schuette were effective enough, although in low light some of the women's outfits had a somewhat 1920s profile.
Even with these minor quibbles, I can not over-emphasize how powerful this opera performance was. The talents of Bellini, Romani, Meade, Davila, Zajick and Belosselskiy gave me one of the best operatic afternoons I can recall.