23 October 2018

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini — NORMA (L. Crocetto, E. DeShong, C. Shelton, A. Li, W. Henderson, K. Felty; North Carolina Opera, 21 October 2018)

IN REVIEW: North Carolina Opera's concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA at Meymandi Concert Hall; Sunday, 21 October 2018 [Graphic © by North Carolina Opera]VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): Norma Leah Crocetto (Norma - rôle début), Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa), Chad Shelton (Pollione), Ao Li (Oroveso - rôle début), Wade Henderson (Flavio), Kathleen Felty (Clotilde); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Performed in concert by North Carolina Opera in Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 21 October 2018]

Virtually every niche of operatic repertory has its behemoths that test opera companies’ musical, scenic, and financial resources—Händel’s Rinaldo, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s Aida, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Puccini’s Turandot, Heggie’s Moby-Dick... Successfully staging works such as these legitimizes an opera company’s standing in the Arts community: produce an Aida or a Turandot that is memorable for the right reasons, and doubts about an opera company’s viability and artistic merit are largely dispelled. There are many works in the bel canto repertory that, if performed in accordance with their composers’ and librettists’ intentions, make fearsome demands on everyone involved with the performance of opera, but the glorious beast among the beauties is unquestionably Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.

Premièred at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 26 December 1831, with a cast that included Giuditta Pasta as Norma, Giulia Grisi as Adalgisa, Domenico Donzelli as Pollione, and Vincenzo Negrini as Oroveso, Norma is one of a handful of bel canto operas that never wholly disappeared from the repertory in the years between initial successes and the Twentieth-Century revival of interest in music of this era. Norma was first performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 27 February 1890, in the company’s seventh season, upon which occasion the opera was sung in German by a cast headed by Lilli Lehmann’s Norma. [As of its most recent hearing in December 2017, Norma has been performed 174 times at the MET, whereas Bizet’s Carmen has received 1,010 performances to date, and Puccini’s La bohème has amassed 1,326 MET performances.] In the nine decades since Rosa Ponselle sang her first Norma at the MET in 1927, some of the world’s most acclaimed singers have been heard as Norma, but encountering a performance of Norma beyond operatically-inclined major metropolitan areas remains relatively rare. That North Carolina Opera brought Norma to Raleigh was remarkable enough, but the virtues of the company’s concert performance in Meymandi Concert Hall verified what many attentive opera lovers already know: world-class opera is no longer the exclusive property of famous opera houses.

North Carolina Opera’s Norma benefited from the leadership of Australian conductor Antony Walker, whose mastery of bel canto has been particularly apparent in his many performances with Washington Concert Opera. Bellini’s music has been accused of being boringly simplistic, with a preponderance of common time making his operas dully foursquare, but Walker’s approach proved from the opening bars of the Sinfonia that blandness afflicts interpretations of Norma rather than the music itself. The physicality of Walker’s conducting is reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein, but any suggestion of showmanship in his work is mitigated by his musicality. In Raleigh, he paced Norma effectively but sometimes idiosyncratically. Tempi in Act One were occasionally lugubrious, causing what dramatic momentum could be generated in the concert setting to stall.

The most baffling aspect of the performance was the cuts, which trimmed little time from the opera’s duration but were jarring, especially in the orchestral postlude to Norma’s cabaletta: here, even the musicians sounded lost in the perfunctory conclusion of the scene. Walker’s conducting was more consistent in Act Two, with stimulating but sensible tempi in Norma’s scenes with Adalgisa and Pollione. Nothing in the maestro’s work was arbitrary. Even when unusual, his choices of tempo always seemed justified by clear-sighted interpretive nuances allied with a discernible consciousness of the performance’s overall trajectory. As in his performances with Washington Concert Opera, Walker’s work substantiated the musical advantages of performing bel canto repertory in concert, foremost among which is facilitating appreciation of the score without visual diversions.

Under Walker’s baton, the playing of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra was mostly expert, the musicians executing their parts with energy and enthusiasm. Mistakes were commendably few, but there was an overall roughness to the playing that was perhaps a symptom of the sort of brief rehearsal schedule typical of concert performances. It was difficult to discern whether orchestral balances were compromised or the instruments’ sounds were adversely affected by the concert hall’s dry acoustic. From house left, the harp was inaudible, and wind instruments emerged from the soundscape with distracting prominence. Observation of Walker’s cuing of individual sections of the orchestra hinted at the conductor​’s awareness of sonic challenges, but these were only partially conquered. Nevertheless, North Carolina Opera’s musicians played capably and conscientiously, their finest moments rivaling the work of orchestras with long-established acquaintances with Bellini’s music.

Like their orchestral colleagues, the ladies and gentlemen of the North Carolina Opera Chorus performed spiritedly. Trained by an invaluable asset to North Carolina’s musical life, High Point University professor and acclaimed baritone Scott MacLeod, the choristers launched the opera’s first act with an account of ‘Dell’aura tua profetica’ that exuded the mystery of the Druids’ primordial sylvan world. Their statement of ‘Norma viene’ imparted a genuine sense of anticipation that transformed into exasperation as their quest for rebellion was denied by Norma’s counsel. In Act Two, their singing of ‘Attendiam: un breve inciampo non ci turbi’ radiated laudable engagement with the meaning of the words. The sincerity of the Druids’ exclamations of ‘Guerra, guerra!’ was beyond doubt, and the visceral excitement of their vocalism was electrifying. The best choral singing of the afternoon came in the opera’s final scene. The shock, horror, and sadness of her community’s reactions to Norma’s confession of having broken her vows were palpably conveyed. There were momentary lapses in ensemble and instances of singing that was more accurate dramatically than musically, but this was a chorus of blood-thirsty Druids, not carefree rustic townsfolk. Plotting war against Rome was surely not always perfectly-tuned business.

A stalwart veteran of North Carolina Opera productions and musical events throughout and beyond the Triangle, tenor Wade Henderson imbued his portrayal of the Roman centurion Flavio in North Carolina Opera’s Norma with vocal security that lent this often-overshadowed character a vibrant musical profile. Singing only in a single scene in Act One, Flavio has little to do, but the music with which he is entrusted is often sung poorly by singers who appear as though they would rather be doing something else. This Flavio, however, was a man would sounded like a willing agent of imperial authority. Henderson voiced ‘In quella selva è morte’ with apt gravitas, and his intoning of ‘Odi? I suoi riti a compiere Norma dal tempio move’ conveyed a palpable sense of alarm. Henderson should always be singing leading rôles, but this Norma was enriched by his depiction of Flavio.

Also contributing markedly to the strengths of this Norma was the performance of mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty, who sang the rôle of Norma’s confidante Clotilde with firm, attractive tone, the impact of which could have been improved by intensification of her focus on forward projection of the voice. In her brief appearance in Act One, Felty sang ‘E qual ti turba strano timor’ pensively, credibly portraying the loyal friend’s sympathy for Norma. Compassionately describing Adalgisa’s anguish to Norma in Act Two, this Clotilde voiced ‘Ella qui presso solitaria si aggira’ with solemnity. The urgency of the character’s utterance of ‘Al nostro tempio insulto fece un romano’ was only partially realized by Felty’s measured enunciation, but, like Henderson, she brought a voice of fine quality to her assignment.

The rôle of Norma’s father Oroveso is often marginalized, both by directors and by indifferent, uninteresting singing. The part is reduced to a comprimario onlooker by merciless excision of his music on a major-label studio recording of Norma, in fact, but as unforgiving a critic of Italian opera as Richard Wagner deemed Oroveso important enough to warrant his composition of an alternate aria for him, intended to be sung by Luigi Lablache in a Paris Norma but seemingly not heard until the Twentieth Century. [Wagner’s aria for Oroveso, ‘Norma il predisse, o druidi,’ is now sporadically included in performances of Norma, including in Boston Opera’s 1971 performances and Florida Grand Opera’s 2016 production.] Singing his first Oroveso, Chinese bass-baritone Ao Li rightly preferred Bellini’s original music, but his performance legitimized Wagner’s confidence in the rôle’s potential. The superb caliber of Li’s instrument was immediately evident upon his entrance in Act One. His assured voicing of ‘Ite sul colle, o druidi’ and ‘Sì: parlerà terribile da queste querce antiche’ established Oroveso as a consequential participant in the drama, and Li was a sonorous, involved presence in the scene prefacing Norma’s ‘Casta diva.’

Oroveso faces a crisis of conscience in Act Two, Norma’s crimes against her sacred calling pitting the character’s paternal instincts against his responsibilities as a defender of his ancient culture. Li declaimed the recitative ‘Guerrieri! a voi venirne credea foriero d’avvenir migliore’ with unstinting brawn. Though undeniably impressive, the raw power of the bass-baritone’s vocalism was intermittently wearying. The character’s shifting emotional predicament calls for more variation in the singer’s delivery than Li offered, but this will likely come with further performances of the rôle. His singing of ‘Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno fremo io pure’ was marginally uneven in phrasing but uniformly handsome of tone—and concluded with a full-bodied low F. In the subsequent scene with Norma and the final scene, Li lucidly evinced Oroveso’s inner conflict. His command of the subtleties of Bellini’s music was not yet complete, but Li sang Oroveso’s music with striking proficiency.

Tenor Chad Shelton’s Pollione was heard earlier in 2018 opposite Liudmyla Monastyrska’s still-new depiction of the title rôle in Houston Grand Opera’s Norma, and his experience in the part was apparent in the unapologetic bravado of his performance. Shelton made his entrance in Act One with barely-containable machismo, the libidinous proconsul’s passions sweeping through the tenor’s body language. The fervor of his enunciation of ‘Svanir le voci!’ was largely effected through volume, but there were signs of a lighter touch in the cavatina ‘Meco all’altar di Venere era Adalgisa in Roma,’ which in Shelton’s performance shared a latent eroticism with Iago’s duplicitous description of Cassio’s dream in Verdi’s Otello. The swagger of the cabaletta ‘Me protegge, me difende un poter maggio di loro’ suited the singer’s emphatic style better than any other music in the score and was sung with abandon. Though on stentorian form, Shelton avoided the written top C in the aria and the B♭ traditionally interpolated in the cabaletta’s coda.

Shelton’s voice had no shortage of resonance in Pollione’s duet with Adalgisa, but, here and elsewhere, his efforts at subtlety seemed contrived. The tenor voiced ‘Va’, crudele; al dio spietato offri in dote il sangue mio’ lustily, and his ‘Vieni in Roma, ah! vieni, o cara’ was more domineering than persuasive. Shelton hurled out ‘Norma! de’ tuoi rimproveri segno non farmi adesso’ in the tempestuous trio with defiance, and his negotiation of Pollione’s awkwardly disjointed vocal line was predictably rousing. Absent from Act Two until the blazing duet with Norma that precipitates the opera’s ultimate tragedy, Pollione makes a final attempt to thwart his former lover’s desire for vengeance, and Shelton roared ‘Ah! t’appaghi il mio terrore’ with the distress of a man suddenly perceiving the limitations of his fortitude. Never retreating from the chest-beating masculinity of his portrayal, he tried valiantly to draw his Norma into a musical battle of wits. Shelton’s Pollione did not complacently surrender to his fate in the opera’s finale: like Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, he unhesitatingly sought death. Vocally, Shelton’s work was variable, bruising Bellini’s music, but his Pollione had brashness and courage absent from many depictions of the part.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) tenor CHAD SHELTON as Pollione, mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Adalgisa, and soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Norma in North Carolina Opera's concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA, 21 October 2018 [Photo by Michael Zirkle, © by North Carolina Opera]Three’s a crowd: (from left to right) tenor Chad Shelton as Pollione, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa, and soprano Leah Crocetto as Norma in North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, 21 October 2018
[Photograph by Michael Zirkle, © by North Carolina Opera]

North Carolina Opera had in mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as satisfying an interpreter of Adalgisa as could be heard anywhere in the world today; and one in full communion with the sisterhood of exalted past exponents of the rôle. The delicacy of her first notes in her introductory scene gave her articulation of ‘Sgombra è la sacra selva’ compelling honesty, the dulcet femininity of her singing creating an arrestingly multidimensional portrait of the character. So heartfelt was DeShong’s singing of the beautiful largo ‘Deh! proteggimi, o dio: perduta son io’ that the depth of Adalgisa’s illicit love for Pollione was wrenchingly evident. In the fast-moving duet with Pollione, DeShong voiced ‘E tu pure, ah! tu non sai quanto costi a me dolente!’ impulsively, effortlessly rocketing to the climactic top notes. The elusive art of bel canto shone in her readings of ‘Ciel! così parlar l’ascolto sempre, ovunque, al tempio istesso’ and ‘Sì, fedele a te, a te sarò,’ her top B♭ unforced but forceful. At the start of her scene with Norma, there was unmistakable apprehension in the mezzo-soprano’s statement of ‘Alma, costanza,’ and the finesse of her handling of ‘Dolci qual arpa armonica’ disclosed an abiding understanding of the text. Her top C in ‘Ripeti, o ciel, ripetimi’ was not without strain, but she reached and sustained it resiliently. DeShong dominated the trio: with Norma and Pollione sparring around her, this Adalgisa exerted herself with newfound surety and vocal eloquence indicative of the character’s spiritual purity.

When DeShong’s Adalgisa acquiesced to Norma’s summons in Act Two, Bellini’s request that ‘Me chiami, o Norma’ be sung ‘con timore’ was touchingly honored. DeShong elucidated the genius of Bellini’s writing for Adalgisa in ‘Sì, giurai ma il tuo bene’ by shaping each phrase with concern for its cumulative effect. Here, the written top Cs came easily but were always integrated parts of the melodic line. Adalgisa’s second duet with Norma is one of the most perfect flowerings of Bellini’s meticulously-cultivated bel canto and in DeShong’s performance sounded like it. She phrased ‘Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi questi cari pargoletti’ with incredible breath control, the limpidity of her tones ideal for the music. Walker’s brisk tempo for ‘Sì, fino all’ore estreme’ posed no problems for DeShong, whose technique triumphed over every obstacle. Joining Norma on a bright, secure top C, she finalized her portrayal of Adalgisa with an exclamation point. As a demonstration of impeccably-prepared, unforgettably beautiful, and poignantly expressive bel canto singing, DeShong’s performance was in a class of its own.

The singer who contemplates her rôle début as Norma without trepidation either has both nerves and a throat girded with iron or has not truly learned the music. The historical precedents for failure in the rôle are far more prevalent than those for success, renowned and generally able singers having come to grief in their performances of Bellini’s music, but the accolades that reward efficacious Normas make assaying the rôle a risk that ambitious singers are willing to take. Already a praised Semiramide, Luisa Miller, and Aida, soprano Leah Crocetto added Norma to her repertoire with this performance. Wielding a lirico spinto voice with carefully-honed agility and a band of steel at the upper extremity, Crocetto possesses basic qualifications needed to sing Norma’s music properly. Nonetheless, cogently inhabiting the rôle relies upon far more than vocal endowment, and Crocetto’s inaugural Norma was a work in progress, promising but still notably incomplete.

Inevitable and pardonable nervousness was likely to blame, at least in part, for several missed cues in the soprano’s performance, but it cannot be pretended that, in the context of a concert performance in which scores were employed, this was not worrying. In general, Crocetto was quick to recover from these lapses in timing. In her first scene in Act One, she traversed ‘Sediziose voci’ cautiously, the voice sounding inadequately supported in the lower octave. Interestingly, though, the sublime cavatina ‘Casta diva, che inargenti queste sacre antiche piante,’ a piece known to defeat singers who otherwise thrive in the part, was the most satisfying episode in Crocetto’s performance. The repeated top As and the B♭s on which the filigree-laden lines crest were produced without pushing the voice, but the wisdom of utilizing a variation of the aria’s conclusion devised for Maria Malibran was controverted by a trill that never materialized. ‘Fine al rito’ was dramatically inert but musically potent. She sang the cabaletta ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna del fido amor primiero,’ a repurposed piece found in two of Bellini’s pre-Norma operas, adventurously, unbothered by the written top Cs. Moreover, the explosive top C with which she ended the cabaletta may have caused structural damage to the auditorium.

The first of Norma’s momentous scenes with Adalgisa paired Crocetto with DeShong, whose stylish singing positively affected the soprano’s vocalism. She sang ‘Vanne, e li cela entrambi’ incisively, and there were mesmerizing sounds in her reading of ‘Oh! rimembranza! io fui così rapita al sol mirarlo in volto.’ Crocetto was motivated by DeShong to devote to ‘Ah! sì, fa’ core, e abbracciami’ heightened concentration on the unique accents of Bellini’s musical language. The mounting agitation of the great trio spurred the soprano to elevate the dramatic temperature of her performance. The pair of top Cs in the polacca, ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido,’ were unerringly placed, and Crocetto handled the fiorature with aplomb. The ire that erupted from her Norma in ‘Oh! di qual sei tu vittima’ and‘ Vanne sì: mi lascia, indegno’ epitomized the rightly-feared fury of a woman scorned. Her top D was a figurative blow to the man who dared to toy with her affections.

Whether staged or performed in concert, the scene that begins Act Two is—or can be—one of the most tense scenes in opera. Unsettled by the revelation of Pollione’s relationship with Adalgisa, Norma contemplates slaying her own children, the innocent reminders of her amorous weakness. Walker initiated the scene with an oppressive aura of foreboding, and Crocetto voiced ‘Dormono entrambi’ with burgeoning tragedy that contrasted with the tenderness flooded her singing of ‘Teneri, teneri figli.’ The​ terror and disgust of ‘Ah! no! son miei figli!’​ were subdued​, but, in Norma’s final exchange with Adalgisa, the soprano sang first ‘Deh! con te, con te, il prendi’ and then ‘Ah! perchè la mia costanza vuoi scemar con molli affetti,’ her rejoinder to Adalgisa’s ‘Mira, o Norma,’ with increased zeal. She ably partnered DeShong in ‘Sì, fino all’ore estreme,’ achieving an agreeable balance between their very different timbres.

Crocetto crowned ‘Ei tornerà’ with a hauntingly beautiful top C, and her imposing bravura—again minus trills—suffused her singing in the duet with Pollione, ‘In mia man alfin tu sei,’ with vitality that her dramatic deportment lacked. Norma’s response of ‘Son io’ when pressed to reveal the identity of the errant priestess is among the opera’s most grueling passages, one in which even Maria Callas famously failed to please an obstreperous La Scala audience, and Crocetto’s pronouncement of the calamitous words was appealing but aloof. The arching vocal lines of the music with which Norma reproaches the vanquished Pollione and embraces her fiery demise provided Crocetto with opportunities to exhibit her legato faculties, and both ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdesti’ and ‘Deh! non volerli vittime del mio fatale errore’ received her most inward, intimate singing of the afternoon, but her legato was not equal to Bellini’s music. Musically, Crocetto displayed some of the traits needed to succeed as Norma, but the fundamental equipoise of voice and technique was not yet present. Dramatically, her first Norma was too impersonal to be convincing as a priestess willing to renounce her way of life for a forbidden love.

Bel canto connoisseurs wary of hearing inept performances of the operas that they love sometimes advocate shelving Norma until singers comparable to the quartet who sang in the opera’s first, sadly incomplete, Metropolitan Opera broadcast—Rosa Ponselle, Gladys Swarthout, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Ezio Pinza—emerge to perform the principal rôles with the requisite dexterity and glamour. Doing this would deprive whole generations of listeners of fully experiencing this magnificent music. Furthermore, singers do not leave conservatories with diplomas that magically render them fit to sing Norma. This is music to which exceptional voices and techniques must acclimate, and that is accomplished solely by studying, rehearsing, and performing the opera. North Carolina Opera’s Norma was not an illustrious afternoon in the opera’s nearly-two-century performance history, but it was a significant event in the annals of opera in Raleigh and, imperfections notwithstanding, a respectable attempt at scaling the heights of one of opera’s most perilous peaks.