Teatro Real de Madrid 2020-2021 review: Norma Cast B

John Osborn & Annalisa Stroppa Shine in Bellini’s Masterpiece

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Javier del Real)

In a recent review, I took stock of the Teatro Real de Madrid’s production of “Norma” and its first cast. But I also had the opportunity to check out the other cast of the work, including Hibla Gerzmava in her debut as the title character.

Unfortunately, it was not the auspicious debut one would have imagined from the famed soprano.

An Undercooked Norma

Gerzmava, although satisfactory, was far from being excellent. She has a lyrical voice with a  dark timbre and awesome volume, particularly on the high register. But she has a fast vibrato which increases as her voice goes to her upper zone, and this vibrato caused, for example, the coloratura of her entrance cabaletta to become blurred and imprecise. She did not take any risks musically and mostly sang forte throughout the evening with some calculated pianissimi at such moments as “Come del primo amore” which contains a high C when the orchestra is silence. In other instances she relied on different tricks to sing soft. For example, to soften “son io” soft, she sang facing the back of the stage.

It also often sounded like she did not have enough fiato to sing the long Bellini lines. In “Casta Diva” during the climatic line that repeats twice with several sustained high A naturals that ascend to B flat, she had to breathe before going for the high B flat, breaking the long line. Moreover, in this instance, the breath she took was rather long and for a moment, she was behind the beat. The roulades of this aria were imprecise.

She seemed more at ease in her two duets with Adalgisa, but it was when the duet with Pollione that you really felt she was fully engaged in the role. Up until that point, you felt that she was more worried about her singing than fully immersing herself in the character, which is rather problematic for any interpreter of such a complex role as Norma. But when she turned it on, it was fantastic. I believe that she will be great Norma because the qualities of her voice are amazing, but this initial attempt seemed very undercooked. Gerzmava did announce last summer that she had struggled with COVID-19 and one wonders if the lingering effects of the virus might have played a part in some of her vocal struggles.



Stars of the Show

The role of Adalgisa was sang by Italian mezzo-soprano Annalisa Stroppa. She possesses a dark timbre with a precise projection of the voice, which often made her and Gerzmava blend too seamlessly (personally, I prefer more vocal contrast between Norma and Adalgisa). But Stroppa not only sang with style, depth, and depurated technique, but she transformed into the naïve, doubtful girl full of emotion and depth.

Her duet with Pollione, “Respirar son vista,” was sung with regret, passion, and abandonment. It is strange that she did not sing the final B flat in this duet as written in the score and leave this note for the tenor (especially after she sang an effortless, well supported high C in her first duet with Norma and several high B flats and B naturals in subsequent moments), but it didn’t detract from an excellent rendition. Adalgisa is a strange role as she does not have a solo aria, disappears 30 minutes before the opera ends, and sing three duets and a trio; moreover, she’s shown as weak and humble in contrast with the strength and determination of Norma and the passion of Pollione. As such, it’s not often the most interesting of roles. And yet, Stroppa’s engagement was so complete and intense that she was arguably the audience favorite by the end of the night.

John Osborn, who played Pollione, is one of the few modern-day examples of the Heroic Romantic tenor. Osborn has a beautiful timbre completely even from low to high. His voice is not big but his projection is mesmerizing so you can still her him even if the orchestra and other soloist are singing forte. His ability to sing dynamics, to color the voice, and his exquisite mezza voce allowed for a more complex interpretation of a man full of love. He paid great attention to every emotional gesture in the music, with his entrance recitative and first part of the aria “Svanir le voci…Meco all’altar di Venere” interpreted with a robust dark heroic tone before giving way to extreme sweetness in his description of his new lover Adalgisa. That Osborn has awesome effortless high notes is no secret (he can sustain high F easily), but what is astonishing is how he projected a forte high C of the aria “Eran rapiti I sensi” and somehow managing a potent crescendo AND subsequent diminuendo to piano, all in a single breath. And to top it all off, he interpolated an extra high C to conclude the cabaletta.

He has solvent low notes too, as he proved with his low C during his duet with Adalgisa, “Ah, non posso.” To conquer and convince Adalgisa he sang the whole verse “Vieni in Roma” with pianissimo sound, something that the light orchestration of this fragment permits. He came back to a dark heroic sound for the trio that concludes the first act, ascending with Norma to a high B natural.

Pollione does not reappear until the final 30 minutes of the opera to sing a duet with Norma and then concluding ensembles. This was the highlight of his performance, where he expressed anger and menace at the beginning of his duet with Norma, before becoming more pliant, remorseful, and then ultimately, loving. It was an astoundingly accomplished transition from a vocal standpoint. For example “Ah! Troppo tardi” was delivered with exquisite mezza voce, followed by a crescendo on “Sará ch’io t’amo” all while maintaining the suspense before the silence of the next line. And all this happened in the middle and lower register of his voice, with several low Cs, a true sign of his vocal mastery. Osborn is an excellent singer, with a beautiful voice and a superb Bel-Canto technique and style, which very few tenors have nowadays.

Argentinian bass Fernando Radó sang the short role of Oroveso with dignity, excellent phrasing, and sustained legato. Even though Oroveso has two arias, he is always joined by the chorus which makes his singing short. The rest are spare few lines in ensembles.

In all, this cast was solid and Stroppa and Osborn certainly made it a wonderful evening.


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