Sunday, December 13, 2015

Los Angeles Opera's magnificently sung and other-worldly Norma

Two striking leads, soprano Angela Meade and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, share the stage in Los Angeles Opera's magnificently cast and fiercely sung new production directed by Anne Bogart.

Angela Meade as Norma and Jamie Barton as Adalgisa
Despite the two leads and two characters having no familial connection, what is achieved is a remarkable pairing of artists in a work set ablaze with emotional conflicts, forgiveness and ineffable love which unfold in spectacular and dramatic fashion. Norma and Adalgisa have secretly broken their vow of virginity, are in love with the same man and in bed with the occupying enemy, the Roman Consul Pollione.

Meade and Barton seem to work from within and together in order to create a perceived sibling relationship full of intensity as only siblings know. In the subsequent fleshing out of unfolding events their attention to vocal detail is palpable and their unity in performance is sublime.

Meade portrays Norma with such verisimilitude that her final self-sacrificial act of death feels in accord with the immense potency she expresses in her character's complexities. Meade does so with a precious vocal instrument that impresses both technically and dramatically. In Meade's Norma we feel her wavering emotional state and her outwardly stalwart determination before she allows us to feel at peace with her own final atonement and death-walk to the pyre. From the start, Meade imbues confidence in her performance with a meditative and thrilling rendition of the opera's bel canto pinnacle, "Casta diva", all the way from recitative through to aria and cabaletta. The voice has staying-power, is agile and luscious, and the many register shifts are counterbalanced gloriously with range of volume and depth of colour.

Russell Thomas and Angela Meade 
At Meade's side, Barton is no shadow as Adalgisa. Recent winner of the 2015 Richard Tucker Award, Barton matches Meade's resilience with a polished and creamy mezzo-soprano. Plump with exciting expressivity and sympathetic control when blending in duets and ensemble, Barton's delectable talents are poignantly on show in Act II's duet with Meade in "Mira, o Norma" as the two melt harmoniously into song as Aldalgisa compels Norma to show empathy for her children before the two make a heartfelt declaration of friendship.

In an imposing Los Angeles Opera debut, Russell Thomas portrays a formidable and adrenalised, battle-ready Pollione, infusing his ember-warm and whipping resonant tenor with a cooling, attractive vibrato. Morris Robinson is a reckoning cornerstone as Oroveso, Norma's father and head of the Druids, with his thunderous, granular and stout bass. Young artists Lacey Jo Benter and Rafael Moras fill the roles of Clotilde and Flavio respectively with finely voiced, admirable performances. The Los Angeles Opera Chorus particularly impress with perceptible individual flights of voice and collective fluidity as the impatient men and women of Gaul.

Although a clear sense of contrast and conflict pervade the work, Anne Bogart's direction is characterised by a well-intended duality of approach but limps along and lacks sophistication. A softly stylised choreographed flow, danced by the young virginal priestesses (choreographed by Barney O'Hanlon), occasionally seeps into the gestures of the cast who otherwise move with weighted-down majesty. Even Norma's two children are curiously choreographed as she raises the dagger in a vengeful act of borderline insanity before throwing her weapon down in self-loathing.

Angela Meade at right as Norma with the Los Angeles Opera Chorus
The duality continues, but successfully so, in Neil Patel's visually minimalistic and single set design that is both economical, intelligent and striking. Norma's 50-100 B.C. setting in Gaul is given an other-worldly light. A curving solid wall with rectilinear openings on stage left appears to symbolise the Roman occupation of Gaul's contrasting lightweight natural timber construction on stage right. Much of the drama and ritual becomes focused on a disc-shaped cutout in the warped, timber-ramped central stage area that appears at times to be the enormous moon in the background's shadow, perfectly juxtaposing the 'grove's' ritual significance. Duane Schuler's lighting design adds mystical depth and James Schuette's costumes pay period homage.

Conducting in the pit, the indefatigable Los Angeles Opera Music Director, James Conlon, sculptured glowing, sympathetic and appealing musical support for his on-stage artists. The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra spun their beauty with tautness, the strings and woodwind in particular displaying impeccable underlying energy. If anything, Maestro Conlon kept a lid on musical volatility, punctuating the score sparingly while providing generous space for the large voices to project across their entire range. It was only in Act II's climactic run when the lid truly lifted off and percussive largesse overflowed.

Despite the production's occasional inertness, the magnificence of the voices complete the dramatic narrative with overwhelming strength and, combined with its contemplative visual beauty, this Norma soars heavenly high.

Production photographs: Ken Howard


  1. I must correct you here. As Pasta's biographer, (Pasta: A Life on the Lyric Stage, available on eBay) I have to tell you that Giulia Grisi was definitely not Pasta's sister. She was an only child. You are confusing her with Giuditta Grisi. Pasta was, in fact, dismissive of Giulia Grisi's vocal talents, as was Bellini. The latter actually refused a great deal of money to revise Norma to suit Grisi's talents.

  2. Kenneth, thank you kindly! There's something to learn from this! I've deleted the content. I need to find the source I found that but I thought it was in the program.