- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Vincenzo Bellini’s dramatic opera “Norma” is every aspiring diva’s Rubicon. No matter what her previous accomplishments, the soprano who can successfully master the exceedingly difficult title role — regarded by many as the operatic equivalent of Hamlet — at once enters the lofty peaks of stardom inhabited by the likes of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Most writers and musicologists regard only the industrial-strength role of Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Ring Cycle as more challenging for a soprano.

The Washington Opera, for its first-ever production of “Norma,” which opened this week at DAR Constitution Hall, has had the good sense and good fortune to engage the versatile Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian as Bellini’s passionate Druid priestess. The quality of her singing on opening night was drop-dead gorgeous, inspiring the entire cast to reach new personal pinnacles of musical excellence.

“Norma” takes place in an ancient Gaul uncomfortably occupied by its Roman conquerors. Oroveso, the aging Druid leader, tries to hold back his men from undertaking an uprising against the Romans after consulting with his daughter, Norma, the high priestess. Unbeknownst to him, however, Norma and the Roman proconsul Pollione have been an item, their offstage activities producing two children who have somehow been hidden from everyone. When Norma discovers that Pollione is two-timing her with Adalgisa, another priestess, she erupts in fury, leading to the opera’s tragic climax.

Miss Papian’s expressive vocal range is astounding, and she needs it, particularly in “Casta Diva” (“chaste goddess”), Norma’s luminous opening aria. With a skillful legato and an instinctive sensitivity to the acoustics of the company’s makeshift space, Miss Papian glided effortlessly from forte to pianissimo in her almost unbearably beautiful rendition of this prayer to the goddess of the moon.

Alternating throughout the rest of the opera between raging and quietly pleading, Norma is a role that plumbs musical and emotional peaks and valleys. Miss Papian’s crystalline voice guided the audience through each nuance with an apparent ease that belied the hard work required to make it happen. It was a breathtaking, heartbreaking, memorable performance.

As Adalgisa, Norma’s fellow priestess, an innocent young woman who alternately stirs Norma’s maternal and competitive instincts, Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura unveiled a sweetly powerful upper range that at once surprised and delighted. Her duets with Miss Papian, often a capella, were splendid, although her intonation faltered slightly in the second act.

As Pollione, Canadian tenor Richard Margison sang bravely but was frequently overshadowed by the ladies — always a problem in an opera composed from the get-go as a diva vehicle. Mr. Margison’s Roman general comes across as a wimpy womanizer who can’t quite seem to get his act together. One wonders what either Druid woman sees in him.

In the smaller role of Oroveso, young American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelson demonstrated a supple smoothness of tone and was surprisingly convincing as the warlike yet compassionate ancient Druid. His costume, though, designed, as were they all, by Alberto Spiazzi, rather reminded one of Gandalf the Great. Spanish tenor Israel Lozano (Flavio) and American mezzo Keri Alkema (Clotilde) also sang well in supporting roles.

Kudos to the Washington Opera Chorus, which just keeps getting better and better. Its crisp and forceful rendition of Bellini’s opening war chorus got the opera off to a rousing start, and they maintained the same high level of professionalism and accuracy throughout the evening.

A stately hat-tip as well to the superb conducting of Emmanuel Villaume, whose captaining of last fall’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” was impressive. He conducted Bellini’s surprisingly modern early-19th-century score with gusto and sensitivity to the singers. Under his baton, the Washington Opera Orchestra’s color, crispness of attack and intonation rivaled the National Symphony Orchestra at its best.

***1/2

WHAT: Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma ”

WHO: Washington Opera

WHERE: DAR Constitution Hall

WHEN: Today and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.; Oct. 18 and 20 at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: $41 to $285

PHONE: Call the box office at 202/295-2400.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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