NEW YORK — “You want tradition?” the Metropolitan Opera asked. “We’ll give you tradition.” And it opened its 2017-18 season Monday night with a production of Bellini’s “Norma” that could have been performed at almost any time in the past five or six decades. There were no updatings or abstractions. Sir David McVicar gave us forests and Druids and Germanic tribesmen with painted faces and room to focus on some good old-fashioned passionate singing — a production in line, in short, with what the composer might have envisaged.
Opera lovers are always demanding more of this kind of production, and the evening gave them a lot to love — but not much, evidently, for others, because this opening night seemed to be missing some of the star wattage of past openings of Peter Gelb’s tenure as general manager. Ya gotta have a gimmick, as the song says, to get the big crowds. And thus Monday’s premiere illustrated the dilemma of all opera administrators: Do something innovative but risky, which will rankle everyone if it doesn’t work (like the infamously expensive and indifferent Robert Lepage “Ring” cycle) but get significant attention, or focus on putting on good old-fashioned opera and content yourself with a more modest, if more enthusiastic, crowd. After the show, in contrast to past years when a live simulcast filled the space before the opera house with folding seats, the Lincoln Center plaza was almost empty.
If there was a gimmick Monday, it was the gimmick of putting the opera in the hands of someone who actually knew how it was supposed to go. The conductor, Carlo Rizzi, made his Met debut in 1993 and has been active at major companies around Europe for years. I don’t know if leading this year’s opening night at the Met signals another uptick in Rizzi’s career, but it should, because he certainly gets Italian opera: his conducting had the taut, light, forward drive that this music calls for, without excessive lingering, soupiness or grandiloquence.
Having a knowledgeable conductor with a steady hand was a decisive factor, I suspect, in moving beyond simply having a cast of strong principals to the kind of drama we got Monday night. It certainly helped the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky fulfill her potential as an ardent and memorable Norma. Radvanovsky has had a place of pride at the Met table for some time, and there aren’t many other active American sopranos at the moment who can match her stature (now that Renée Fleming is pulling back from opera). But frequent descriptions of her as “cool” or “detached” were indicative of an issue — not, I maintain, any lack of emotional commitment or communication, but a tendency to linger over her music, dragging on the tempos, and going a little flat, all of which made her sound phlegmatic. On Monday, she had moments of rhythmic vagueness — only to have Rizzi refocus her, as it were. In Act I, you could sometimes hear the gears shifting as she executed her music with a hint of calculation. But in Act II, she moved into higher gear and offered some magnificent singing in a deeply felt performance that conveyed emotion in the best — which is to say genuine — sense.
She was spurred on by the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, taking a step into new terrain with the role of Adalgisa, heftier than she usually sings, and featuring an exposed high C that she didn’t even attempt. DiDonato is a supremely controlled singer, and she responded to the heated emotional temperature and vocal weight of Adalgisa by literally flinging herself into it, lying prone across the stage at one point while she sang. She also offered a lot of anguished sobbing — and a lot of clean, spot-on singing, especially in her two extended scenes with Norma, which were, as they should be, among the evening’s highlights. DiDonato doesn’t have a lot of low in her voice, but she does have clean coloratura, which sounded veritably bell-like against Radvanovsky’s blurrier sound.
I have usually been a fan of Joseph Calleja, the tenor, and Monday he got off to a glorious, robust start. But his voice soon got a little tired and became increasingly nasal, so there was a huge contrast from the beginning to end of Act I, though he found his way again in his scene at the end of Act II. Matthew Rose, the bass who played Norma’s father, Oroveso, also elevated his performance as he went along, finishing with a very affecting leave-taking as Norma goes off to the funeral pyre, a sacrifice to appease the gods and a punishment for betraying her vows as a priestess by falling in love with a Roman soldier, who later two-times her.
As for McVicar’s production, while it was in a sense traditional, it wouldn’t be fair to call it old-fashioned. Robert Jones’s gently moving trees and huge set elevator raising the whole forest scene into the air to reveal Norma’s cottage among its roots were certainly state-of-the-art. And McVicar, as is his wont, delved into the characters to give the whole thing more focus and specificity than mere blocking. Throughout the opera, Norma tries to restrain her fellow tribesmen from going to war with the Romans; when she finally changes her position, the tribe rushed forward and emitted a war-whoop of delight, a raw and chilling battle cry that gave this scene an edge it needed. On a more intimate level, Radvanovsky was a believable and well-rounded Norma, whose problems actually engaged one’s attention. I am all for coming up with innovative ways to stage opera, but it’s nice once in a while to let the opera stand on its own and speak for itself. But that means accepting, as administrators are increasingly forced to do, that not that many people want to hear great opera — however much it would move them once they got inside.
Norma continues at the Metropolitan Opera through Dec. 16; Angela Meade and Jamie Barton will take over the principal female roles in December.