By Vincenzo Bellini
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
Bellini’s Norma has a storied history at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The company’s second production of its inaugural year, Norma premiered in Chicago on the first day of November 1954, and featured the incomparable and controversial American-born diva, Maria Callas in the title role. It was her first performance on U.S. soil. Long considered the apex of opera’s bel canto era, Norma is generally acknowledged to be the ultimate soprano role. The genre, which literally means “beautiful song”, extols the virtues of dramatic and vocal gesture enhancing musical performance, as well as requiring beautifully even tone, mastery of legato phrasing, and the technical ability and stamina to deliver incredibly ornate and emotionally intense melodies. It takes an artist with the vocal power and charisma of a Callas, a Sutherland, a Caballé to triumph in this very challenging role.
Lyric has cast just such an artist in its current, landmark production of Norma. American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky debuted at Lyric during the 2010-11 season as Amelia in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). From her very first powerful note to the tender expressiveness of her final scene, it was obvious that this singer was going to be someone exceptional in the world of Grand Opera. Since that debut performance, Radvanovsky has gone on to worldwide acclaim, portraying powerful women including Donizetti’s Ana Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Elizebeta (Roberto Devereux), Puccini’s Tosca and Verdi’s Aida. It is in the role of Norma that Ms. Radvanovsky initially forged her reputation as one of the greatest singers of our age, and her performance in this Lyric Opera production is simply further evidence of that fact. Sondra Radvanovsky is a true diva at the pinnacle of her vocal and dramatic power.
Power is definitely what is required of Norma, a Druid priestess whose people are being subjugated in Gaul by the invading Romans. As the story begins, the Druids are restless and making plans for a rebellion with Norma’s father, the priest Oroveso (played with compassionate dignity by venerable Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli). Norma, who has visions of the Romans brought down by their own depravity and corruption, seeks to hold her people in check. Norma also has another, secret reason for wanting peace. She is in love with Roman proconsul Pollione (Russell Thomas), and has given birth to two of his children. In his Lyric debut, Thomas shows that he is every bit Ms. Radvanovsky’s equal, with a beautifully polished and authoritative interpretation. The focused energy of his singing and the beauty of his tone are exceptional. The same could be said of Norma’s antagonist Adalgisa, gloriously portrayed by Ryan Opera Center alumnus turned international sensation, Elizabeth DeShong. An exceptionally expressive mezzo-soprano, her portrayal of the novice priestess who unwittingly falls in love with Pollione is heartbreaking, and her duets with Radvanovsky are heavenly. With each new vocalization, another aspect of Norma’s personality is revealed: priestess, mentor, mother, jealous lover, vengeful warrior, remorseful traitor; all trapped in an inescapable cycle of love and betrayal.
Bellini’s melodies are so emotionally intense and the beauty of his score so encompassing, that we barely notice minute changes in the physical set throughout the performance. Constructed on a grand scale, but visually stark, the environment that set designer David Korins has created perfectly reflects director Kevin Newbury’s vision of spiritual vs. emotional struggle, as experienced by virtually all of Norma’s principal characters. In the foreground, a huge common area, perhaps a fortress or temple, houses large scale religious symbols and an altar, as well as rows of shields and spears. A large sliding door at the rear of the stage opens into a sacred forest grove where snowflakes gently fall among the silver birch trees. It is a simple and powerful visual interpretation and the perfect backdrop for Bellini’s deeply conflicted characters, as they struggle for individual absolution. The subtle lighting design by Lyric veteran Duane Schuler helps reflect the changing moods of the piece while keeping the focus squarely on the characters, and the low key costumes and surprisingly contemporary hair designs (by Jessica Jahn and Sarah Hatten, respectively) enable Michael Black’s superb Lyric Opera Chorus to create a viable and engaging Iron Age world for them to inhabit.
In fact, the synchronicity with which the singers, supernumeraries, chorus and orchestra collaborate in creating the world of Norma is if not spiritual, then certainly transformative in every sense of the word. The dialog between Radvanovsky, the Lyric Opera Orchestra, and maestro Riccardo Frizza (who also conducted the Met’s blockbuster production of Norma) is exquisitely precise and perfectly integrated. That pattern is repeated over and over in every aspect of this seamless and spellbinding production. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Norma represents a new level of creative transcendence and artistic excellence for this cultural treasure. It is a masterpiece not to be missed.
(“Norma,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, 5 more performances only! Through February 24 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive 312-827-5600)