Monday, April 10, 2006

The Virginia Opera wrapped its 2005-06 regular season in Fairfax this weekend with performances of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. “Norma” follows the tale of a Druid high priestess who has jeopardized herself by taking as a lover Pollione, the Roman proconsul who has subjugated her cult as the ancient Roman Empire conquers Gaul. Add her sudden discovery that her Roman lover has decided to leave her for Adalgisa, one of her novice priestesses, and you have the recipe for a tragic finale.

Although written for the 1831-32 season of La Scala in the bel canto style for which Bellini was famous, “Norma” looks ahead to the mature work of Verdi and even Wagner, relying more on a pre-verismo “sung drama” approach and less on showy arias. That said, Norma’s famous aria during her grand first-act entrance, “Casta diva (Chaste goddess”), is numbered among the most memorable in the operatic repertoire.

In a genre that generally calls for lighter lyric voices, “Norma” is a demanding score that requires substantial vocal firepower. The Virginia Opera’s cast certainly had the appropriate weaponry, but unfortunately, this was not the most memorable performance we’ve heard.

As “Norma,” soprano Fabiana Bravo certainly seemed to have the pipes to support one of opera’s most strenuous lead roles. Indeed, she never failed to soar over the large orchestral forces. However, she was off her game during Friday’s performance. Her high notes were not cleanly hit; she had the good sense to get off them quickly. Also, her attacks seemed tentative and sometimes stilted.

As Pollione, tenor German Villar produced surprising volume — but perhaps too much in the first act. True, Pollione’s entrance and following arias are supposed to help portray him as a swaggering, belligerent fellow. Yet, Mr. Villar viewed this as an opportunity to belt out the music in the “one (loud) volume fits all” style that makes today’s pop songsters so excruciatingly dull. Bel canto requires at least some nuance, which Mr. Villar supplied in the later acts.

Vocally, the real highlight of this production was mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi’s brilliant portrayal of conflicted but loyal Adalgisa. Miss Rishoi is a recent graduate of the Wolf Trap Opera Company, where we have seen her only in trouser roles. It was refreshing to see her portray a woman at last, and one strongly buffeted by a cascade of emotions.

Although she is at the beginning of her career, Miss Rishoi handled this difficult role with perfection, displaying a huge voice of impressive range. She also proved capable of supplying the bel canto nuance and subtlety that her co-stars lacked. She already has appeared in minor Wagnerian roles with the Washington National Opera and the Seattle Opera.


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