Teatro La Fenice 2017-18 Review – Norma: Soprano Mariella Devia Reigns Supreme In Final Staged Production

Michele Crosera

The evening was all about Mariella Devia.

At the age of 70, and following a hugely successful career, in which she has performed some of opera’s greatest soprano roles in the world’s most famous opera houses, she is taking her final curtain calls at the Teatro la Fenice in three performance as Bellini’s “Norma,” a wonderfully appropriate role for the High Priestess of bel canto to say goodbye to the opera stage. Although she began her career specializing in early music, she quickly moved, via the operas of Mozart, to the operas of the bel canto giants, Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini, upon which she established her worldwide reputation. Earlier in the week, on May 12, 2018, at Teatro La Fenice, as recognition for the valuable contribution she has made to the world of music, she was presented with the “Il Premio Una vita nella musica 2018” award, and joined the stellar list of past recipients, which includes such names as Menuhin, Brendel, and Bernstein. If all this seems to suggest that Devia is retiring from the music scene completely, be assured that this is not the case. On the contrary, she is scheduled for a recital at the Donizetti Festival, Bergamo in November, and is also intending to focus on a teaching career, which she hopes will enable young singers to benefit from her knowledge and substantial experience.

Diva Reigns Supreme

At this stage in her life, she would certainly be forgiven if she had taken the decision to depart in a less demanding and challenging role. After all, Norma is a role that can cruelly expose any shortcomings, and to be fair and not surprisingly, her voice is not the same as it was at its height. Yet, although the voice showed a certain degree of inconsistency, she put in a wonderful performance, which was underpinned by her formidable technique. Throughout the evening she displayed a wonderful ability to characterize the voice through the application of an array of subtle shadings and vocal inflections. Her coloratura was in excellent shape. Although her voice is starting to sound a little thin on occasions, it still possesses a rich texture, and her ability to spin out long lines remains strong. Her vocal strength was a marvel to witness, as it soared, with what seemed apparent ease, above the orchestra and chorus. The best-known piece in “Norma” is undoubtedly “Casta diva” and certainly drew the loudest applause. But surprisingly, she sang other pieces with far greater success. “Tenere figli” was delivered with great sensitivity, capturing the despair and underlying love Norma has for her children, and it also allowed her to display her wonderful legato. The trio “Oh di qual sei di vittima,” which brings Act one to an end, was also excellent; her voice blending perfectly with Carmela Remigio and Stefan Pop’s and wonderfully expressed her shock and anger at Pollione’s betrayal.

Memorable Send-off With Star Support

It was clear that the entire cast was determined to make this a memorable send-off, and they did not fail. In the role of Adalgisa was Carmela Remigio, and her performance was absolutely fabulous. Her Adalgisa was sensitive and fiercely loyal to Norma. She possesses a stunningly attractive voice, characterized by a delicious array of contrasting colors, wonderfully dark in the lower register, which brighten, yet retain their underlying warmth, as she moved up the stave. The voice is strong, and agile, her passaggio seamless, and her coloratura sparkles. Moreover, she manages the voice so well. In her duet with Devia, “Solo furtiva,” the two sopranos sang with warmth and affinity, their voices blending delightfully.

In the role of Pollione was the tenor Stefan Pop. While his acting often did not convince, his singing certainly did. He sang with a great deal of freedom, the voice nicely suited to the role of the Roman soldier. His middle register, in particular, has an attractive tone, and although, in the upper register his voice occasionally sounded a little forced, it retained a pleasing quality. It is powerful and agile, which he used to successfully characterize the fickle Roman.

Dressed in an imposing costume and with a strong physical presence, the bass, Luca Tittito, dominated the stage as Oroveso. His voice, secure across the range, flexible and powerful, with a warm undertone, oozed authority. His expressive phrasing of the vocal line perfectly capturing his status as Chief of the Druids, and his single-minded determination to be rid of the Romans.

Both Anna Bordignon and Emanuele Giannino made excellent contributions in minor roles of Clothilde and Flavio.

Under the baton of Riccardo Frizza, the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice produced a gripping and sensitive reading, which highlighted the subtle contributions of individual sections, creating a sound world full of rich textures. He produced some marvelous crescendos, in which he filled the auditorium with the full sound of the orchestra, yet at the same time never compromising the singers’ ability to perform.

The Coro del Teatro La Fenice Chorus was in fine form, under the direction of Claudio Marino Moretti. At times their impact was devastating in its effect.

Controversial Choice of Words…

The Afro-American Kara Walker was entrusted with the direction, set and costume design. Normally, it would be unnecessary to make reference to a person’s race, but Walker makes her own identity the defining factor in this reading of the work. In the program notes, she outlines her motivations and thinking behind the production, which amounts to little more than a tortuous justification for setting “Norma” in an imaginary 19th-century African country under colonial rule. In itself, such a setting is not unreasonable, certain obvious parallels can be drawn with the Roman conquest of Gaul. Walker, however, also wants to impose her politically correct ideology upon the work, which leads to some interesting results; for example, she rejects the idea of “blacking up” the cast with the bizarre result that we watch white Europeans subjugating black Africans, who are white. Her explanation for this decision is based on the understandable grounds that in the USA Afro-Americans find minstrelsy offensive due to its connotations with slavery and its coarse projections of ugliness, which reinforce exclusion, but La Fenice is in Italy, a country which has no history of slavery or minstrelsy, so its relevance is severely curtailed. Whether through poor decision-making or deliberately trying to be provocative, Walker had managed to entangle herself in a web of absurdity. She rails against the “misappropriation” of African art by Western abstract artists, who presumably include Picasso and Braque, although she does not mention them by name, and by implication rejects the idea that cross-fertilization between cultures can be a positive driver, and ignores the underlying equality with which abstract artists engaged with African art. However, it is in her concluding remarks that we discover the real agenda, “my ‘Norma’ might be viewed as a misappropriation of European gifts.” So basically, it is an attempt to shock or annoy by “stealing” a white European work of art, in order to make the audience confront the misappropriation of African art as one of the many crimes committed during the colonial era. Of course, it does not shock or annoy because it is something of which everyone is already aware. There is, of course, no problem whatsoever with Walker promoting such an agenda in her art or in her direction of staged works.  Afterall, audiences are clever enough to engage with such views, without the need for such detailed programme notes. But ultimately, it did not work.

…But Lost in Practice

Fortunately, the condescending tone of the program notes was not transmitted onto the stage. In fact, if anything, Walker downplayed her political agenda in practice, restricting it to an occasional visual reference to Africa, most notably the large mask that lay across the stage, the abstract/surrealist scenes on the backdrop which conjured up impressions of the landscape and flora of Africa, and a painting of an African woman, who watched over the audience as it entered the auditorium, on a curtain at the front of the stage. The costumes, apart from a headdress or leopard skin, could equally have been loosely based upon the dress of any ancient society. The dressing of Pollione and Flavio in costumes suggestive of the Great White Hunter were, however, an ill-judged and heavy-handed attempt to provoke an audience reaction, and detracted from the refined and balanced mise-en-scene. Vilmo Furian, the lighting engineer, did a splendid job in producing a wonderfully warm ambiance. “Norma” is a work with many static scenes, and Walker did not do a bad job in maintaining an engaging momentum, although with a couple of exceptions, namely Adalgisa and Oroveso, the characters were flatly presented. Overall, it was not as controversial as the programme notes made one fear. The sets, although not spectacular, created a pleasing context for the drama, and Walker’s designs for the backdrops were imaginative, evocative and aesthetically appealing.

Ultimately, however, the week was a celebration of Mariella Devia’s career, of which these performances of “Norma” were merely a final curtain call. The audience had come to give her a great send-off and wish her well for the future. She was cheered throughout the evening for her solo displays and at the end of the evening the flowers rained down upon the stage, the audience shouting their approval. She deserved no less.

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