A love triangle, betrayal, an ominous war, a necessary death – all centered on a strong woman, is perfect opera fare.
The brilliant 19th century composer Vincenzo Bellini found such a plot in “Norma, ou L’infanticide” a play by Alexandre Soumet.
Don’t worry, in the opera Norma threatens her betraying lover with infanticide but doesn’t kill their children. What Bellini did was to turn the story into what has become the iconic bel canto opera.
Now, the Lyric Opera of Chicago which has only done “Norma” three previous times beginning with Maria Callas in 1954, is doing a new-to-Chicago, co-production starring opera’s current Norma favorite, Sondra Radvanovsky.
She has already sung the role to great acclaim in director Kevin Newbury’s productions at the San Francisco Opera, Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. Newbury places the opera in 50 BC at a sacred Druid grove in a Gaul that is occupied by the Romans.
Opening night, Radvanovsky had the amazing breath control needed to stretch out notes longer than usual and the technical ability to play with them that bel canto requires. Her “Casta diva,” the opera’s famed aria to the moon goddess, though not perfect, was admirable.
But please know that bel canto doesn’t just mean beautiful singing. The reason the opera is not done more often is that only some divas, such as Callas, Joan Sutherland and Jane Eaglen were willing to take on the genre’s technical challenges of highly articulate phrasing, gliding of one note to another and the variety of staccato and legato notes.
The role of Norma, the opera’s title figure of a high priestess, not only has to have an extraordinary command of these techniques but also has to be on stage and sing throughout most of the opera.
Radvanovsky’s advantage is that she is also a fine actress and her duets and trios ware with two fine singers.
Elizabeth DeShong, a powerful mezzo soprano, is the Druid novice Adalgisa who thinks she loves the Roman leader Pollione. As seen in “Mira, o Norma” DeShong has a wonderful vocal range. She and Radvanovsky beautifully interact with dramatic passion.
Tenor Russell Thomas well carries off the role of Pollione who fathered Norma’s children but now loves Adalgisa. In a dramatic ending he rejoins Norma as she goes to a fiery death as a sacrifice as a traitor to her people and for defying her priestess vows.
Italian bass Andrea Silvestri is an excellent Oroveso, the Druid’s chief and Norma’s father.
In all, ‘Norma’ plays out with the dramatic, emotional intensity of Bellini’s music and Felice Romani’s libretto. The opening night audience appreciated Radvanovsky and the others with a long ovation.
Unfortunately, the production’s somewhat grim setting and costumes detract from the opera’s dynamic story. Most of the story is set in a large, dark, barn-like structure where scenery changes mean opening up or moving the barn door.
However, the Lyric Orchestra under Conductor Riccardo Frizza’s pulls it all together as Bellini’s gorgeous music streams through the Civic Opera auditorium.
Details: Lyric Opera of Chicago’s ‘Norma’ is at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, Chicago, IL through Feb. 24. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 and visit Lyric Opera.