Houston Grand Opera 2017-18 Review- Norma: Liudmyla Monastyrska & Jamie Barton Triumph in Bellini’s Masterpiece

By Julieta Gomez de Mello

The great German soprano Lilli Lehmann once famously remarked that singing all three Brünnhildes in Wagner’s Ring Cycle , which equals about eight hours of singing, was less taxing than a single performance of Bellini’s “Norma.” Indeed, a great “Norma” certainly doesn’t grow on trees, and in any given generation there are maybe a handful of singers who can tackle the role, and even fewer among that handful who do so to great acclaim. This is in large part due to the wild, transgressive journey she takes throughout the opera, which encompasses such a wide emotional spectrum and requires such vocal versatility that every adjective imaginable can be used to describe her.

A Soprano With the Goods

In Felice Romani’s text she is first described in four different ways: mystical, radiant, gleaming like a comet yet terrorizing like a prophet of doom. Based on what I heard this past Friday, April 27 and Sunday, April 29 at Houston Grand Opera’s Resilience Theater, I can say that Liudmyla Monastyrska was, if not quite mystical and comet-like, vocally accomplished and dramatically convincing. Singing-wise, she handled this fiendishly difficult role with technical bravura, tackling many of the most challenging coloratura and declamatory passages with precision and, true to the bel canto style, she also offered an endless array of gleaming pianissimi, even legato, and plangent phrasing, particularly in her final aria “Deh! non volerli vittime.” But softly-floated high notes were not all that she offered. During the more fiery, doom-like dramatic outbursts, such as the confrontation scene which precedes the dynamic trio that ends Act I, “O non tremare! O perfido…Oh! di qual sei tu vittima,” the “Guerra! Guerra!” chorus and the deliciously vengeful “In mia man” duet in Act II, her powerful spinto soprano packed a punch despite the Resilience Theater’s poor acoustics.

Her opening lines, “Sediziose voci” were sung with a full-bodied, dark and authoritative sound, complete with powerful and resonant chest notes, giving the impression that here was a true leader that could command the people and make the star of Rome veil itself in terror.

Unfortunately, things took a rocky turn during the famous opening aria “Casta Diva,” as scaling the voice back for the softer, lower-mid range singing proved to be a bit of a challenge. While she certainly looked radiant perched on a wooden altar, with arms stretched out, she sounded a bit wooly and underpowered, with the phrasing somewhat choppy and the tone occluded. But once she got through the first opening lines, she began to unleash the voice, spinning out lovely pianissimi and completing the aria with a wonderful trill that sparkled as much as the bedazzled, gold-colored gown she was wearing.

The cascading coloratura in the introspective cabaletta that follows, “Ah! Bello a me ritorna” found her back in solid form, with every note cleanly articulated and dynamic variations that added color and finesse to Bellini’s runs. There were, throughout the night, instances of mushy vowels, particularly when singing above mid-range, and while her Italian isn’t the most idiomatic or crisp, she did emphasize keywords and phrases and one never got the sense that she didn’t know what she was singing about.

Acting-wise, she really came into her own during Act two when the drama really started to build, as Norma finds out that the Roman proconsul Pollione, an enemy of the druids, has been called back to Rome. Pollione, we soon find out, is not only the man she loves, but is also the father of her two children.

From this point forward, beginning with the recitative that begins scene one of Act two, “Dormono entrambi …non vedran la mano che li percuote,”  her singing likewise became more emotive and vocally assured. The subsequent aria “Teneri, teneri figli, Essi, pur dianzi delizia mia” was sung with a silvery tone and plangent legato that matched Bellini’s beautiful orchestration, bringing to life Norma’s grief and inner turmoil. Acting-wise, the action that follows this aria is probably the trickiest in the entire opera, as Norma’s desperation and guilt overwhelm her and, horrifyingly, she begins to contemplate murdering her own children. This scene, when not executed properly can come off as silly or campy, but when done right is absolutely chilling.

Here, Monastyrska managed to time her actions in a way that allowed Norma’s psychological volatility to flow organically with the music and with her singing. As she decides to go through with the terrible deed, she slowly and quietly walks to the opposite side of the stage and lifts a dagger from one of columns. She then walks back toward the children, who are laying dormant on the floor, and begins circling them, in predatorial fashion, with a sinister gaze of determination, clutching the dagger in her hand. Do not hesitate, she tells herself, for if they fall into the hands of the Romans they will become slaves. They must die. Yet, she does hesitate. Is she capable of committing such an atrocious act, we wonder? Then in an instant, a look of iron resolve sweeps over her face, and she tells herself once more that she must do it: These are the enemy’s children! She declaims in a forceful outburst. Finally, she clutches the dagger, lifts it up and, just before delivering the devastating blow, collapses and cries out in despair “son mi figli! Non posso!” In an added layer of tragedy, Adalgisa walks by, and, petrified and frightened by what she is seeing, is unable to intervene and instead runs away crying in despair. Although slightly unconventional, this actually heightened the emotional impact of the scene and also served to partly justify Adalgisa’s motivation behind renouncing her love for Pollione and instead attempting to persuade him to return to Norma.

Elsewhere in the performance, a few overused stock poses and gestures made Monastyrska seem more like an ice princess than a mystical druid priestess. But overall, she offered an emotionally sincere and engaging portrayal of this iconic soprano role which, like many of the best iterations, had a timeless quality to it.

Adalgisa Of Our Time

It also didn’t hurt that her Adalgisa, sung by the wonderful mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, definitely upped the ante with her superb singing and committed acting.

As the young virginal priestess torn over her love of Pollione and her devotion to her faith and also to Norma, Barton’s performance was absolutely thrilling. Flaunting a truly luxurious, rich-voiced mezzo reminiscent of the great Marilyn Horne, her Act one aria and subsequent duet with Pollione, sung by American tenor Chad Shelton, a fellow HGO Alumnus, was exquisitely phrased with a honeyed tone, even legato, and abundantly resonant chest voice. She also exhibited a secure high register, with blazing high B’s that soared through the Resilience Theater during her opening duet with Pollione and her subsequent duets with Norma.

In addition to “Casta Diva” and other glamorous arias Bellini is most known for, this opera features two of the most beautiful and virtuosic duets ever written for females voices. Thus, it should come as no surprise that in Friday night’s performance, both the Act one duet, “O Rimembranza” and the Act two duet, “Mira o Norma,” were absolute highlights, as Barton and Monastyrska easily spun out phrase after phrase of gorgeous legato while also seamlessly blending their voices in perfect triads, matching in both color and volume. During these duets, Barton particularly shone, not just because of her individual singing, but also for the manner in which she expertly provided harmonic support to her Norma. Moreover, their genuine simpatico and appreciation of each other’s singing was evident, and their warm embraces seemed that of true BFF’s.

It should also be noted that these beautiful duets and the relationship itself between these two women is not only unusual in Italian operas, but also society in general, so much so that, centuries later, seeing two women being supportive and loyal to each other, as opposed to engaging in a bitter cat fight over a flighty tenor, is still a refreshing and empowering image.

In fact, from a more modern perspective, what makes this opera so relevant is the way it emphasizes the importance of solidarity and communal relationships, both of which are crucial to achieving gender parity and other social and political goals we are still striving to achieve.  For instance, Pollione’s decision to jump in the pyre and die alongside Norma can be conceived as an act of spiritual unification and concordance rather than one of amorous devotion or masculine heroism as it might have been viewed centuries ago.

A Refreshing Take

Speaking of the tenor, Pollione, Chad Shelton did a formidable job in a role that showcases some beautiful and galvanizing music but is somewhat thankless dramatically. Though his Pollione was smaller-scaled vocally than the two leading ladies, he nevertheless displayed an evenly produced voice with a pleasant timbre and incisive Italian. And to his credit, he was able to fill Bellini’s lines without ever forcing the sound. He also moved well onstage, and his portrayal was unique in that he made Pollione seem less of a suave womanizer and more like a man who is genuinely tormented by the consequences of his actions and convictions. This was a refreshing take on a character that is not very sympathetic or fleshed out in Romani’s text.

As the Druidic priest Oroveso, Bass Peixen Chen was vocally and physically assured and authoritative while Soprano Yelena Dyachek brought a statuesque and noble bearing to Norma’s confidante, Clotilde.

Hope Springs Eternal

The production, designed by David Korins and directed by Kevin Newbury, is fairly faithful to the text but also adds some mythical, Game of Thrones-esque elements, such as the sacred grey oak tree placed at the center of the stage, reminiscent of the large willow tree that the Stark siblings Brandon and Sansa often visit outside their castle in Winterfell. Behind the tree there is a large foreboding door at the back, with two totem bullheads on each side of the walls and two large columns decorated with numerous swords, arches and daggers. Indeed most of the action seems to take place in a sort of temple-like structure or vestibule, like the Mead hall that is described in the epic old English poem Beowulf. These images are intended to reflect the ritualistic world of sacrifice and conflict that Norma and the Druids inhabit, and for the most part, the production does facilitate the relation of these themes and ideas effectively. Later in Act two, the doors of the temple open to reveal the latter half of the set: a sacred forest, with spiritual elements personified by falling snow and warm shades of pastel hues shown in the background, reflecting the shifting atmosphere of the opera. Then during the large “Guerra Guerra” chorus, when the druids all huddle together, clamoring for war and destruction against the Romans, a giant bull-like skeletal figure appears on the stage, and the scene culminates in a powerful an riveting musical ensemble.

On the smaller stage of the Resilience Theater, the production’s sparse set design was visually striking and the chorus scenes, in particular, were exciting. But for me the most inspired directorial touch happened at the beginning of Act one: as the overture is ending, and we hear the serene atmosphere of the sacred druid forest depicted in Bellini’s brilliant orchestration, a bird blissfully flies over the stage, perhaps to emblematically remind us that hope springs eternal, even after devastating losses and tribulations.

Amid Chaos, The Show Must Go On

Despite the high artistic and musical values present, the circumstances surrounding these performances created a plethora of challenges. Yet, these challenges are what ultimately also made the performances triumphant, if not heroic. After a massive hurricane flooded HGO’s home theater, the company was forced to relocate to the convention center, a smaller venue with poor acoustics, no walls and no orchestra pit. This setup left the singers sounding dry, over-exposed and underpowered, which inevitably resulted in a somewhat diminished visceral and emotional impact.

Still, the fact that there was a performance at all was a miracle in and of itself given the logistical and financial nightmare the company no doubt had to endure. Moreover, despite the uncongenial circumstances, the performance was absolutely air-tight musically, with singers, orchestra and chorus perfectly in sync at all times.

Finally, it has to be said that the success of this endeavor was no doubt in large part thanks to Patrick Summers, HGO’s artistic and music director, who expertly conducted the orchestra in a way that accommodated the singers yet still managed to maintain a lively tempo and cohesive sound. I don’t think he went out of his way to provide a highly nuanced or lavish reading of the score, but it was nevertheless a very competent and elegant one. Overall, this Norma is worth seeing, if not for the interesting dynamic of a more raw performance, then surely for the brilliant vocal performances of the singers, who certainly put on a show, which, as they say, must always go on.



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