Back in fall 2013, Sondra Radvanovsky sang her first “Norma” at the Met. A few performances later, Angela Meade and Jamie Barton stole the spotlight when they were paired together for the second cast of the opera.
Now it is the 2017-18 season and the pattern has continued, with the inclusion of Marina Rebeka for two performances in between. While Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato got the chance to open the season and sing the HD performance, Meade and Barton were given the chance to have the last say on the production for this season.
Barton & Meade Vocally Spar & Reconcile
Those who witnessed the 2013 performances undoubtedly remember the fascination with this latter pairing, the two Met Council Audition winners, perfectly suited vocally to one another. Those thrilled by the sizes of their voices and their strong chemistry together will undoubtedly find much to enjoy this time around, as was witnessed on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The two singers are particularly fantastic at singing off of one another in the famed duet during the second act, their ascensions perfectly synchronized and their powerhouse sounds combining to shake the entire auditorium. It’s quite thrilling.
Individually, they each offer unique fits as well. In the title role, Meade’s firm vocal presence makes her Norma a force to be reckoned with, particularly in moments where she has to surge over a full orchestra or has a tête a tête with another singer, particularly the trio that ends Act one or the final confrontation with Pollione where she truly shone as the leading priestess. Her strongest showcase was the scene in which she considers murdering her children, Meade’s voice sliding up and down in color, at one point firm and agitated as she questioned killing her offspring before suddenly melting into a whispered “Si” that betrayed her insecurities. All the while she moved hesitantly in their direction, an ominous nature creeping into her portrayal.
Meade does have a rather coarse sound, no doubt from the weightier repertoire she’s ventured into, which can take away from the beauty of her singing and even cause some unstable pitch. This is particularly noticeable on open vowels in the upper range when she sings with tremendous strength, but is also present in more delicate moments where she spins her vibrato extremely quickly. Nowhere was this more present than during “Casta Diva” where the legato was fine and polished, but the pitch suffered somewhat. Meade also possesses some of the most incredible crescendos in the industry, floating notes up high and then bringing them to the fore with irresistible tension. However, she does tend to phrase repeatedly in this manner, taking away its spontaneity and making it feel more like a tool to be used than necessitated by the drama.
Barton, as Adalgisa, stole the show vocally from her colleagues, her singing flawless throughout the night. Not only was she Meade’s equal in their vocal battle and then unification, but she melded beautifully with Joseph Calleja’s more subdued and delicate take on Pollione. In many ways, the opening duet between Adalgisa and Pollione was the vocal highlight of the night, the two at odds with one another. While Calleja attempted to soothe and coax Barton with a sunny quality, his voice caressing every phrase, Barton was more pointed in her rejection of his initial advances. In these moments her voice was powerful and assertive. But he persisted in his delicate manner, even as he uttered the agitated “Oh Crudele,” almost pleading in his singing. But slowly she gave way to a lighter quality, Pollione surely winning the battle for her heart. By the time they got to the final section of the duet, “Vieni in Roma” the two were on the same wavelength, their voices thinner and brighter, matching one another in their respective solos. While we could feel Barton’s conflicted feelings from her text, there was no doubt as to her desires in this moment.
Calleja’s Pollione was a firm and potent soldier, though his opening aria betrayed a sensible heart and, as noted, his exchange with Adalgisa made him out to be more of a tragic hero. There was a moment of cruelty where he seemed intent on hitting Norma during their confrontation, but he withdrew from it. It highlighted his character as a warrior, which was largely missing in his vocal interpretation.
Matthew Rose was also quite solid as Oroveso, singing with elegance in his few solo moments. Ditto for Michelle Bradley as Clothilde. And the only thing we can say about Christopher Reynolds and John Reynolds, as Norma’s children, is that they are adorable.
If there is anything to be said about the interpreters at large, it is that their vocal strength was not always fully-fleshed with their physical behavior onstage, the actors mainly staying rooted to their spots throughout vocal exchanges. In the end, this limited the understanding or immersion with the characters outside of the text and vocal interpretation. This writer is not one to enjoy comparisons with other artists, but in watching the other performers in this same production not so long ago, certain essential details were clearly missing. The most notable one was the interaction that Meade and Barton had with the children. Watching the other artists engage with the youngster in those other presentations added to the dramatic stakes of those moments. It was evident that they understood the ramifications their actions would have on the children. This was not quite so present in this rendition.
Filling Space Rather than Using It
This, of course, is the sign of some faulty direction, which was likely the cause on this day.
Despite this being the third review of this “Norma” production, this writer has yet to relate an opinion. On the positive side of things, its pretty aesthetically. Norma’s hut has a chaotic feel to it with a wide range of colors and a space that is somehow more overbearing in its magnitude than even the forest settings.
But it doesn’t feel like a big enough step away from the previous production to illuminate the opera any further. Actors don’t necessarily move with much purpose from one side of the stage to the other, with a few minor exceptions, and the set often seems like its more interested in taking up space than using it effectively. In some ways, this has become emblematic of many of the McVicar productions of recent years, and, by extension, many of the productions over the last 10 or so years. Part of this might be the gargantuan size of the Met stage, but it still begs the question as to why directors aren’t using that to their advantage instead of as a major pitfall that they should find ways to cover up.
Stalling Instead of Building
In the pit, Joseph Colinari produced a solid if not always engaging reading of the score. He played loudly when the score demanded it and quieter when appropriate. Relying on the fact that he had singers with gargantuan sounds, he often pushed the orchestra to its utmost power, which often seemed unfitting for a bel canto opera by Bellini (though one might intuit why Wagner found it so compelling). His tempi did lag quite a bit throughout, wrestling away some of the dramatic impetus that makes his Bellini’s finest dramatic work. “Norma,” in the right hands, moves at breakneck speed dramatically, sweeping over the listener with its sense of growing doom. Colinari never quite conjured that, his choice of tempi often stalling instead of building.
While not a fully engaging dramatic feast, this “Norma” is perfect for those that want vocal fireworks that will rock the Metropolitan Opera. Meade and Barton produce irresistible vocal chemistry together, with Calleja’s beautiful sound always a pleasure.