Entertainment » Theatre

Norma

by Jack Gardner
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jan 26, 2016
Dana Beth Miller and Mlada Khudoley
Dana Beth Miller and Mlada Khudoley  

For the second production of its 75th Anniversary season, Florida Grand Opera is presenting Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma," an age-old story of love and betrayal.

Set in ancient Gaul (in other words, Northern France) the story concerns the Celtic priestess Norma who is in love with, and has borne two children by, the invading Roman general Pollione. Pollione, however, has cast Norma aside for the younger and fresher priestess-in-training Adalgisa. Much agonizing and soul searching goes on and they all die in the end. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that, but not by much. That's the beauty of grand opera -- as long as there is beautiful singing, who cares if the plot is a little thin.

Bellini's music is some of the most sumptuous music of the bel canto era and "Norma" is considered to be one of the prime examples of bel canto opera. The leading role is one of the most difficult and taxing in the soprano repertory. The music requires a large amount of breath control and the ability to sing lengthy coloratura phrases cleanly and with great control over the voice. It is not a role that just anyone can sing.

The two women handling this role for FGO are both well up to the task even though they give very different performances. Opening night Norma was sung by Russian soprano Mlada Khudoley. Her voice is bright and shimmering with high notes that sparkle with diamond like clarity. The voice does not carry a lot of weight in it, which is perfect for this role. Her spin of the pianissimo high notes was stunningly beautiful.

On the acting side of things Khudoley never seemed to completely lose herself in the character. It always seemed that she was a little outside the proceedings and more focused on making a beautiful sound than being a woman consumed by passion. But when the sounds are as beautiful as the ones Khudoley made, the disconnect can be completely forgiven.

The second performance featured Mary Elizabeth Williams in the title role. Williams is a heavier-voiced soprano than Khudoley. Where the other diva is all shimmer and sparkle, Williams' voice is butter and velvet with a rich warm middle tone. Fans of Maria Callas, who made the role of Norma her own in two classic recordings for EMI records in the '50s and '60s, will love Williams rich, vibrant, full throated sound. From a purely technical standpoint, Williams is better than Callas with clearer and richer high notes and less noticeable vibrato.

From the acting standpoint, Williams shines as well. Her Norma was intense and passionate and completely in the moment throughout the entire performance. She raged, she pleaded, she contemplated filicide, she begged for her children and she prayed to her God -- and it never seemed that we were watching Williams... we were truly watching Norma the Celtic Priestess.

Comparing the two sopranos is difficult. Both Khudoley and Williams gave stellar performances but they were very different in style, scope and execution.

The first aria for Norma consists of a cavatina, "Casta Diva," which is slow with long legato phrases, followed by a cabaletta, "Ah! Bello A Me Ritorna," which is faster with fiery coloratura runs and lots of ornamentation. The beginning cavatina features a run that leads up to a series of repeated high Bs with a climatic high C at the end. It is a challenging moment for any soprano requiring a massive amount of control and power at the same time.

Khudoley was stunning with the amount of pianissimo she could spin in to those high Bs, making each one distinct with a lot of dynamic variation before hitting a C that sparkled like a firecracker. Williams' more mellow voice had more power throughout the runs and her high Bs and C were rich and full-throated but never forced or harsh.
The final plea of Norma, "Deh non voleri vittime" was a high point of both performances. Both sopranos were powerhouses in closing out their performances.

In the role of Adalgisa, mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller sings the first three performances of the opera while the remainder will be performed by Catherine Martin. Miller is a knockout in the role of the young priestess-in-training. She nearly steals the show the moment she comes on stage. Her voice is a clarion call with a beautiful evenness from the top of her register to the very lowest tones of her voice. She sings Bellini's coloratura with clarity, conviction and a true sense of the bel canto phrase. Vocally, Miller possesses one of the largest voices on the stage between the two casts but she manages to balance perfectly regardless of whoever she is singing with.

The character of Adalgisa shares three major duets in Bellini's opera. First in act one she has a duet with the tenor, "Va Crudele" then she gets to sing a duet with Norma, "Sola furtive" followed by a trio with both Norma and Pollione, "Oh! Di qual'sei tu vittima!" In act two she sings another duet with Norma, "Mira, O Norma." All of these pieces require a sense of delicacy and coordination with the duet partners and Miller was in sync with everyone she shared the stage with.


Mary Elizabeth Williams  (Source:Brittany Mazzurco)

As an actress, Miller was spot-on in her characterization. The naivety and guile of the young woman seduced by the older man and then the heartbroken betrayal when she finds out the truth followed by sincere regret and a desire to make things right. Miller gave the audience every single one of these emotions during her performance.

The tenor role of Pollione is one of the more thankless roles in the tenor repertoire. He is a very unlikable character and Bellini does not give him great music to sing. For the opening night performance the role was sung by Giancarlo Monsalve. Monsalve is a very handsome man and cuts a striking figure on stage. He looked very pretty and his singing was mostly pleasant.

The role was sung in the second performance by Frank Porretta who was adequate, if uninspiring. It is difficult to make much of this role and both tenors were hampered by having noticeably small voices. During the ensemble numbers, they were both often overwhelmed by the women singing with them.

The role of Oroveso, high priest of the Druids, and Norma's father as well, was sung in both performances by bass Craig Colclough, who has a rich, booming voice with sonorous low notes and a capacity to be heard in the farthest reaches of the theater.

Richard Wagner was the conductor of an 1839 performance of "Norma" and felt that the bass aria in the original score was less than acceptable so he composed an aria "Norma il predisse" that is a possible addition to Act Two by singers performing the role of Oroveso. The Wagner aria is stirring with its use of brass instruments and its rousing soldier chorus, but does seem a little musically out of place next to the rest of Bellini's opera. Colclough however, sang it remarkably well.

The opera was conducted by guest conductor Anthony Barrese. He was seen last year with Florida Grand Opera conducting Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers." Barrese is a small, energetic man who is interesting to watch on the conductor's podium. He is extremely sensitive to the singers on stage and is truly a world class conductor.

"Norma" takes place in Gaul nearly 100 years before the birth of Christ. Northern France is a very flat area of the earth but set designer John Conklin decided to put a very large mountain outside of Norma's temple. Even though it is geographically inaccurate it was stunningly beautiful.

Conklin's concept for the opera, from set to costumes, was truly a sight to see. It was art upon the stage and a glorious package for Bellini's glorious music.

Lighting designer Thomas Hase contributed to the beautiful look of "Norma" while Wig and Makeup designer Sue Schaefer made everyone look fantastic. Visually, "Norma" is one of the most beautiful productions FGO has presented in recent years.

There is a reason that "Norma" has remained part of the operatic cannon for the past 180+ years. Bellini's music is sumptuous and rich and the title role is a challenge that most sopranos, and even the occasional mezzo-soprano, cannot resist. It is an audience-pleaser as well.

Florida Grand Opera has given South Florida audiences a world class production of "Norma." This is a home run hit and will, without a doubt, be one of the classical music highlights of 2016.

"Norma" runs through Jan. 30 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami, FL 33132. It will then play Feb. 11 & 13 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312. For tickets and information, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.



Jack Gardner has been producing theater in Dallas and Fort Lauderdale for the past 8 years. He has performed in operas, musicals and dramatic works as well as doing voice-over and radio work. Jack lives in South Florida with his three dogs.


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