The final cast for Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, the 2017-18 Metropolitan Opera House season opener, has checked in, and were you just listening to it, you’d be hugely gratified by the sonics of it.
Warning: There will be no comparison here between first-night Norma (Sandra Radvanovsky) and Adalgisa (Joyce DiDonato) (one reason: I didn’t catch them) and now the last five performance replacements, respectively, Angela Meade and Jamie Barton.
It’s plenty to say that for warmth, control and required dramatic passion, Meade and Barton were close enough to superb on their opening night that no knuckle rapping is called for. Perhaps Meade’s “Casta Diva” packed less power than audiences desire, but that may have to do with her being placed too far upstage. (More on the direction and blocking later.) Also in the final stretch of the Meade-Barton-Joseph Calleja gnarled-lovers trio—Calleja a first-night holdover—something blurry took hold. Just a temporary blip.
(Matthew Rose, another hold-over as Oroveso, was strong, and Michelle Bradley as loyal nursemaid Clotilde.)
Incidentally, according to a curtain pre-performance announcement, Calleja was singing through a cold. You could have fooled me.
But if virtually start to finish this Norma was an aural bel-canto-ing treat—last-performances conductor, the sensitive Joseph Colaneri, gets much credit, as does, of course and always, Bellini—it wasn’t the greatest thing to look at.
Assuming that nothing was substituted from the new production’s bow, a baffled reviewer wonders what designer Robert Jones was thinking. The first and last scenes take place in a forest of thick-trunked, leafless trees with Norma’s upstage altar amidst them. But what is the season? If it’s winter, why are so many of Norma’s Sicambri warriors bare-chested. How hearty are they?
For scenes three and four, a huge and heavy hut with a ceiling opening for smoke to escape is slowly lowered and, later, just as slowly raised. That’s some hut, but if it’s only a hut, why are high priestess Norma and priestess hopeful Adalgisa so sumptuously dressed for scene three and four?
Helping matters even less is David McVicar’s desultory direction. As Pollione talks Adalgisa out of her impending vows so he can abandon Norma to her considering murdering her and Pollione’s sons; as Norma and Adalgisa discuss Adalgisa’s running off with her as-yet-unrevealed suitor; as the three encounter one another, there’s so much random wandering around the stage and so much awkward embracing that patrons may find themselves embarrassed for the singers.
And guess what! With this cast, there’s also a problem with which McVicar couldn’t really reckon: the physical resemblance between Meade and Barton. They’re so much alike in generous form that when they sing facing each other, it’s as if one of them is looking in a mirror. That Meade’s soprano and Barton’s mezzo-soprano also, and curiously, almost coincide means that their frequent harmonizing sometimes doesn’t quite sound as strikingly articulated as it should.
In addition, get this unexpected development the Meade-Barton casting carries with it: Since the two could pass for twins from the far side of the footlights (or two Matryoshka nesting dolls in their opening scenes’ shmattes), the impression is that Pollione has fallen in new love with a woman just like his first wife, only younger. Yup, he becomes like men all over, no matter the locale or century. Surely, this outcome isn’t deliberate, but it definitely makes for a juicy new twist on the old Norma.