By Francisco Salazar ( | First Posted: Oct 25, 2013 03:39 PM EDT

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Bellini's "Norma."

(Photo : Marty Sohl)

This review is for the performance on October 18, 2013.

Bellini's "Norma" is known for its demanding challenges and has been hailed as the most difficult role for the soprano. Various Divas such as Kristen Flagstad and Dusolina Giannini were famous for learning the role but backing out before performing it in theater and on recordings. The role's coloratura demands, and vocal line combined with the heavy orchestration require a soprano who has it all. However now a days there are only a handful of sopranos who sing the work and it is for that reason that the Metropolitan Opera has not performed the opera in six years.

On this occasion the dramatic soprano Sondra Radvanovsky took the task. The soprano, known for her Verdi interpretations and verismo repertoire, triumphed in her first bel-canto role at the Met. From her first entrance Radvanovsky's big lush voice rang through the hall demonstrating her authority on-stage. When she sang her "Casta Diva," she phrased each line with delicacy and a shimmering piano. Her coloratura passagework was impeccable and each note floated with beauty. The cabaletta portion "Ah! Bello a me ritorna" however lacked the same precision as "Casta Diva." Some of the coloratura was smudged and messy. Radvanovsky however did prove her stamina here as she repeated the piece, something that is hardly ever done due to the difficulty and taxing nature of the role. In her first duet, "Oh! Rimembranza! Io Fui Cosi" with Adalgisa, Radvanovsky also proved a compelling partner as she adjusted her enormous sound to Kate Aldrich's lighter sound. As Aldrich sang Adalgisa's intoxicating lines of love toward Pollione, Radvanovsky's responses equally demonstrated the same passion and intensity. She sang each line with beauty and ardor. However in the trio, "Oh! Di Qual sei tu Vittima," with Pollione (Aleksandrs Antonenko) and Adalgisa when Norma discovers that her husband Pollione is Adalgisa's lover, Radvanovsky vocal line turned to fury and vigor. During the passage "No, Non Tremare!," Radvanovsky delivered two perfect high Cs with power and authority. There was also glimpse of despair as she sang the angry lines especially in the second part of the trio "Vanne, si mi lascia indegno." Radvanovsky's range, flexibility and agility was also evident at the end of the trio as she added a High D to culminate the act.

The second act of the opera proved even more powerful particularly in the final scene. During the concertato Radvanovsky sang her final plea, "deh non volerli vittime," with desperation and remorse. When she sang the words "pieta," she started out in a fortissimo and made a diminuendo almost as if she was yearning. The effect was heartbreaking.

From a more dramatic standpoint, Radvanovsky tried to evoke the character as vividly as possible particularly in scene one of the second act when she is reciting her monologue "Doromono Entrambi." She sang her lines with remorse, confusion and anger. When she tries to kill her children, Radvanovsky took a dagger but quickly dropped it and looked at the children with tenderness. In the aforementioned act one duet with Adalgisa, Radvanosky sat on a block of wood, and smiled in ecstasy, captivated by Aldrich vocal lines; even when she was not singing it was hard to look away from the internal monologue expressed by her face. In the act two duet with Pollione "In mia man alfin tuo sei", Radvanosky stood over tenor Antonenko as he pleaded for Adalgisa. There was a moment of mockery as she laughed at his pleas and took out her rage on the hero.

As Pollione Lativian tenor Antonenko returned to the Met after a one-year absence. The tenor had a rocky start during his aria. When he began his "Meco all' altar di Venere," Antonenko lacked the delicacy necessary for the repertoire and seemed uncomfortable with the long phrases. When he went up to his high C required for the role, Antonenko nearly cracked making him even more uncomfortable for the remainder of the aria. The cabaletta "Me proteggere me difende" was rough and loud and an overall mess. The subsequent duet "Va Crudele, al Dio Spietato," with Adalgisa saw him in more comfortable voice even though he overpowered Aldrich. His coloratura phrases were smooth and his breath control was impeccable especially as he pleaded with Adalgisa to remain with him. Antonenko demonstrated his powerful voice particularly in the act two duet with Norma. During the duet he sang with anguish and despair. This was a Pollione who was in pain and who would be willing to sacrifice himself to save his love; in these moments, the love for Adalgisa rang true, adding more emotional impact and depth to the characterization. At the same time he also brought authority and defiance as well. During one moment when Radvanovsky mocks him, Antonenko stood up and took her dagger and put it against his neck. He sang the words "Ah! Pria Morro" with breath-taking force and control.

As Adalgisa, Aldrich brought a youthful allure to the role. While her voice was small in comparison to Radvanovsky's and Antonenko's, she made up for it with expressive phrasing and her acting. During the Act one duet with Radvanovsky she sang her lines with passion bringing youth and innocence to the character. During the famous Act two duet "Mira! O Norma," "Aldrich showed her flexibility in the florid lines and also demonstrated her musicality as her held notes floated into the theater. During the duet Aldrich also showed her torment. She was hesitant at approaching Radvanovsky as if she had just commited a mortal sin. However as the two made up  at the end of the duet, Aldrich brought back the sense of youthfulness that was present in the first duet.

As Orvoeso, James Morris' voice sounded wobbly and old. It no longer has the gorgeous ring of past glory days and it can hardly project into the auditorium. Eduardo Valdes was a formidable Flavio while Sian Davis excelled as Clotilde.

Riccardo Frizza held the orchestra and chorus together but failed to show his presence throughout the night. He also failed to impress during the overture as it felt lacking in musicality and felt rushed.

Meanwhile John Copley's black sets were drab with a few changes in bricks and circles. Is it modern? Is it attempting to be classical? The costuming, which was beautifull, suggested the latter, while the empty space suggested the former. The ultimate result lacked a true perspective or point of view. There was no direction as the singers looked like they were improvising. The singers themselves were so enthralling that the production could have been all black and would have been more compelling than Copley's confused production. The curtain interruptions did little to help the overall pacing of the performance and considering the nature of the set (which never really changes), it is incomprehensible why the set changes cannot be made during musical interludes as most modern productions do these days.

Despite the production's massive shortcomings, this is probably the best Norma the Met has performed since the 70s and one that should not be missed. Radvanovsky proves she is up for the task and that she is one the best Norma's of current times.

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