Ruth Ann Swenson Shines in Baltimore Opera's ‘Norma'

"I'm glad that Baltimore thought outside the box," says soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, above, about playing the second female role in the opera company's production of "Norma."
"I'm glad that Baltimore thought outside the box," says soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, above, about playing the second female role in the opera company's production of "Norma." (By Michael Defilippi -- Baltimore Opera)

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

She's been a leading diva at the Met. She's sung most of the soprano roles in the coloratura repertory. So it's notable to find Ruth Ann Swenson at the Baltimore Opera singing not the lead role in Bellini's "Norma," but the second female role of Adalgisa, usually sung by a mezzo-soprano.

Even more notable is that she is the best thing on the stage.

Swenson, 49, is one of those singers who illustrate the risk of maturing early. She has been singing for so long and so prominently that she seems like a known quantity. Throughout the 1990s, she issued a steady stream of CDs with such titles as "Positively Golden" and "Endless Pleasure." There was no question that she had a formidable technique, but she also often projected a coolness. More admired than beloved, she has been taken a little bit for granted.

The idea that Swenson's star had waned after a successful 2006 battle with breast cancer came to a head with an interview she gave last year to the New York Times. In it, she observed that her then-current contracts with the Metropolitan Opera -- Cleopatra in Handel's "Giulio Cesare" and Violetta in "La Traviata" -- were her last. The Met denied that there was any problem, but there have been no further contracts, either.

Perhaps people just haven't been looking at the right repertory. The best things Swenson has done in recent years have been unexpected choices that push her into new emotional and vocal terrain -- like Massenet's "Manon" at the Met in 2001. Or Adalgisa.

They are also roles that showcase the lower part of her voice. As Adalgisa, she had no problem descending into the lower register.

"Chest voice, it's something that in the old school was always taught, whether you're a high coloratura or a dramatic soprano," she said by telephone from Baltimore, where she was preparing for the final two performances of the run (tonight and Sunday). "Fortunately, my teacher incorporated it into my technique when I was studying."

The role of Adalgisa was actually written for a soprano, Giulia Grisi, who later sang Norma herself. The part calls for formidable high notes, as Swenson is quick to point out. "I do take that D at the end of the trio," she observes; indeed, it soars out over Hasmik Papian, who sings Norma, and Frank Porretta, the doughty but slightly muted Pollione.

Norma's scenes with Adalgisa are the emotional and musical heart of the opera. The sporting aspects of opera particularly come out in their first duet, which pits the two singers against each other head-to-head, high-C-to-high-C. Last weekend, Papian, who sings the role at the Met and around the world, flung herself at the music with steely determination. Swenson, by contrast, remembered to make it beautiful.

It's not the first time Swenson has ventured into lower territory; after all, she has been singing Rosina in Rossini's "Barber of Seville," another role that is also taken by mezzos as well as sopranos. Still, it seemed like a departure for her -- until one heard it.

"I think some people want to box you into a category," she said. "They don't think of me as that. But it really does suit my personality." She hopes to do the role again. "I'm glad," she says, "that Baltimore thought outside the box."

The Baltimore Opera is trying to do a lot of out-of-the-box thinking these days. After the company ran a deficit in its season-opening "Aida," rumors have been swirling that it will not weather the current financial crisis. James Handakas, the new acting general manager, says the board has made a commitment to keep the company alive, moving ahead with fundraising efforts and cost-saving measures that include cuts in chorus, orchestra and even sets for future performances.

But not making cuts in "Norma," which has an international-caliber cast (including conductor Christian Badea, who leads with verve, and bass-baritone Hao Jiang Tian as Norma's father, Oroveso), has resulted in a strong argument for supporting the Baltimore Opera.

Swenson, too, is thinking outside the box. While this past summer saw her celebrating the 25th anniversary of her first appearance with the San Francisco Opera with a successful turn in Handel's "Ariodante," her next new role is Rosalinde in "Die Fledermaus" with Opera New Jersey, hardly the kind of top-flight company she's used to. But if Adalgisa is any evidence, this kind of exploration may be just what she needs to keep the next chapter of her career vibrant.

"The world of opera is changing every day," she says, the closest she will come these days to publicly acknowledging her difficulties. "I've always been one of those people who have tried to serve the composer. It's about the singing and the voice." That used to sound boring. But in Baltimore these days, it's sounding pretty good.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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