On Saturday night at the Washington National Opera, we got some strong singing and some fairly turgid drama. Call this new production of Bellini’s “Norma” a glass-half-full performance.
“Norma” is a pretty static piece to begin with. Though the music and words are all about love and anguish and fury, the actual opera involves a lot of standing around. For this production, WNO hired Anne Bogart, who comes from outside the world of opera, as director. This can result in fresh insights, as it did in her “Carmen” at Glimmerglass a couple of years ago. In this “Norma,” unfortunately, she opted to embrace the opera’s symbolic side, resulting in earnestness to the point of parody — since “Norma,” with its Druid priestesses and Roman soldiers, is a pretty easy target of parody to begin with.
So we had a matriarchy of priestesses represented by a sextet of white-robed vestal-virgin acolytes whose stylized entrances led one audience member to quip, “Walk like an Egyptian!” We had macho Roman soldiers running clunkily out on stage like something from a Monty Python sketch. The raked stage of Neil Patel’s set was physically hard to navigate, and Bogart had her chorus and extras moving around a lot to no discernible purpose, often running awkwardly up or down the incline. A big, circular cutout in the floor alternately delineated the altar and Norma’s dwelling; it also corresponded to a circular moon that rose slowly in the sky through the second act, and these round forms were offset by large sticks or beams leaning against one side of the stage — a stylized, masculine forest. On the backdrop, a large, indeterminate shape like a flying menhir was surrounded by a series of rough concentric circles, looking vaguely yonic. It all felt a little clunky.
And the heavy-handed symbolism tended to flatten the drama. Strip away the druids from “Norma” and you have the age-old situation of a woman whose guy, after two kids and untold sacrifices, throws her over for her younger colleague. However static the opera as a whole, the moment when the younger woman, Adalgisa (Dolora Zajick), having confessed everything to Norma (Angela Meade), innocently reveals the identity of her lover, Pollione (Rafael Davila), usually gets a rise out of the audience.
Not on Saturday. Despite a pretty great build-up of no-holds-barred singing in the Norma-Adalgisa duet, the conductor (the young, somewhat callow Daniele Rustioni, who in his WNO debut seemed to prize effect over substance) charged forward without giving room to breathe (a more experienced conductor could have subtly cued applause). And since Bogart had Adalgisa reveal Pollione’s identity by showing Norma a miniature likeness, the impact of Pollione’s actual entrance was almost nil: suddenly we found ourselves confronted by the trio without having quite followed what had happened. A small moment, you say, but there are so few moments of genuine on-stage drama that it’s significant when the production fails to deliver on the key one.
You could argue that when you’ve got two vocal powerhouses like Meade and Zajick, the production doesn’t really matter. Say what you will about the visuals (neither woman is petite) or emotional fine-tuning, but you had two women on stage who really know how to sing. The Kennedy Center Opera House has not heard so many messe di voce — the effect where you start singing with a little thin wisp of sound and get gradually louder and louder and then tail off again — for many years.
But I’m going to be careful about crowning Meade the second coming of sopranohood; she still has some room to grow. The role of Norma is hugely challenging technically and dramatically, and anyone taking it on is unfortunately up against the standard set by Maria Callas, still in many listeners’ ears. Meade has a lot of the elements: a sizable voice, stamina (she was notably better in the second act than in the first) and technical ability. It did turn out that one reason she offered so many beautiful floating soft high notes is that her voice may not have the muscle to deliver powerful singing on top; at least, it didn’t in the Act I trio in which she reads out Pollione. Her lower register also doesn’t seem very strong, and she has room to focus her dramatic interpretation, especially in the first scene; but she developed the character as the night went on. She was certainly far better than most other singers today in this role, and gave a more-than-respectable performance.
She had an extra challenge in the form of Zajick. “Veteran” is a tactful word with which to convey many of the things that Zajick is, but if the years make themselves heard in a slight paling of some parts of the voice, her years of experience show, as well, and she can deliver the emotional and dramatic goods when she wants to. And in true operatic tradition, she gave her singing a little extra moxie every time she got to echo what Meade had just done. The Act I Norma-Adalgisa scene culminates in the quintessential dueling-sopranos duet (Zajick is a mezzo, but Bellini didn’t necessarily see the role that way), which involves both women repeating the same music, each going up to a high C: Meade offered a stunning, floating pianissimo, and Zajick sweetly responded with another one, which she held out even longer. Opera singing is partly an athletic feat; healthy competition can motivate great performances, and I’d venture that the energy between Meade and Zajick helped them both step it up a notch.
Dmitry Belosselskiy, who sang Norma’s father, Oroveso, seems to be embarking on a big-league career, and to judge from his full authoritative singing in the second act, he deserves it. Unfortunately, Rafael Davila, a tenor who also made his WNO debut on Saturday, does not, and it’s he we’re going to have to hear next season in another big-barreled tenor role, that of Alvaro in Verdi’s “La forza del destino.” Pollione is in a line of tenor scoundrels, but he needs to have a big, weighty, sexy, jerky voice, and Davila didn’t have the power or presence to be more than a place holder.
The two smallest roles were given to Domingo-Cafritz young artists. Mauricio Miranda was woefully inadequate as Flavio, who despite his small role gets to sing a couple of lines that can be fairly pivotal if the audience can hear them. Julia Mintzer showed promise as an intense Clotilde, a role that was once taken by the young Joan Sutherland. Glass half-full: There was a lot of promise in this performance. Glass half-empty: The evening itself was a bit of a clunker.