A review of the Lyric’s “Norma”

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I’m very happy to report that the Lyric production of “Norma” is by far the strongest musically that I’ve witnessed thus far in the 2016-17 season. One would be hard pressed to think of any other contemporary singers who could do any better in the four major roles, especially that of Norma, than those who took the stage at the Civic Opera House. The chorus was also outstanding, and the fine Lyric orchestra turned in yet another solid performance.

Bellini was not the creative orchestrator as were the other Italian masters of opera. His instrumental accompaniments are relatively simple, and his overture to “Norma,” may seem to the casual ear to have little more to recommend it than a repeated playing off between strings and winds previewing melodic material from the opera proper. But under the sensitive direction of conductor Riccardo Frizza (and some magnificent playing by the first fiddles), although this prelude is strongly dosed with the banal “March From ‘Norma,’” when it ends, Bellini’s intent to suggest a tragic tale unfolding is very clear.

Frizza, by the way, may have done more than elicit a haunting version of the “Norma” overture. As musical director of this production he got a performance from bass Andrea Silvestrelli like I have never heard from this singer. We’ve heard the Italian bass at Lyric many times now, and he has never failed to give a professional performance. But when he delivered the opening “Ite sui colle, O Druidi” with almost a “profundo”-type sonority, I ruffled through my program to make sure it was Silvestrelli. I could only think, Where have you been keeping that sound all this time? He was consistently powerful in all his remaining ensembles. Was it the conductor that brought this robustness to the fore? Of course it just could be that Silvestrelli is getting really good.

I don’t usually review “comprimario” singers, but by way of bolstering my claim as to how good this cast was, tenor Jesse Donner was very good as Flavio. His pitch was perfect and his tone was pleasing. More importantly his timing was quite accurate, so the action never flagged when he fed repeated setup lines to Pollione when the two of them more or less had the stage to themselves.

Making his Lyric debut tenor Russell Thomas did an excellent job as Pollione. This tenor part may be from a bel canto opera, but it is not a typical bel canto tenor role. Rather it is far more like the “chest voice” roles of Verdi or even some Puccini. Donizetti’s Edgardo from “Lucia” comes to mind as a similar tenor role scored about the same time. From the beginning, in “Meco all’altar di Venere,” Thomas was impressive with his consistency of tone and ringing high pitches. As the opera progressed, however, he was let down by some tentative stage direction, which hampered his delivery in almost every ensemble. Fortunately his singing did not suffer from any distractions and he did more than justice to the duet, “Viene in Roma,” the trio, “Norma, de’ tuoi rimproveri,” the duets, “In mia man alfin tu sei” and “Qual cor tradisti.”

For many years now the role of Adalgisa is performed by a mezzo-soprano, and when you hear Lyric’s Elizabeth DeShong sing her opening solo passage (superbly) that features the sonority of her lower register, you’d think that’s what Bellini was after. In fact Adalgisa was created by a young soprano named Giulia Grisi, who would be immortalized by her being the prima donna in another Bellini opera, “I Puritani.” Soprano, mezzo, we won’t quibble. Lets just say that Ms DeShong was another very fine singer, second in artistry only to the prima donna. Her two duets with the soprano, “Sola, furtiva al tempio” and “Mira, O Norma” are two of the very best moments of the opera. Besides being expert at creating long, languorous melodies, Bellini had the knack of scoring close, consonant harmonies that are simply dreamy. These duets are certainly very strong factors in what made this performance so enjoyable.

A while back we suggested that the conductor/music director got special efforts from his performers. It could be something else, too. For some time sportscasters have found it normal that the achievements of a superstar tend to raise the level of performance of his teammates. Could the same be true in music? For example, there is no question in my mind that soprano Sondra Radvanovski is a musical superstar. Her tone, her range, her coloratura when she needs it, her acting ability (despite amateurish directors!) – she’s got it all! I don’t ever think I’ve ever heard it quieter in the audience at Lyric than when she sang the “Casta diva” the other night. And I know that I have never heard this wickedly difficult aria sung any better. Is it possible that by someone singing so brilliantly, it makes the other singers do better?

I remember seeing Ms Radvanovsky for the first time about ten years ago, and I thought even back then that there was no one who could sing Verdi any better than she did. The following season I interviewed her in her dressing room and was extremely impressed with how unassuming the northwest Indiana-born soprano was. I asked her a number of questions regarding opera and music, most of which I’ve forgotten. But I do recall one neat thing. I asked her if there were a particular or specific event or moment that caused her to decide to become an opera singer. To my surprise she said yes there was! When she was a girl she was watching TV and happened to see Placido Domingo singing. At that moment she decided to become an opera singer. I wonder if Domingo knows how he spurred the career of Sondra Radvanovsky?

About John Rizzo

John H. Rizzo has lectured and written extensively on opera and Italian culture. Many of his essays can be read on www.italianoperachicago.com, the official Internet organ of the Italian Opera Company of Chicago. Retired now from teaching at Oakton College, Rizzo has published five novels, with a sixth due out in September. He is a committee member and judge of the LiPuma-Raimondi Vocal Contest, hosted annually by the Italian Cultural Center at the Casa Italia in Stone Park.

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One comment

  1. Teresa Cerasuola

    Dear Mr. Rizzo:
    Never fail to enjoy your reviews and am lucky to hear Lyric opera’s performances via WQXR radio NYC, therefore I’m looking forward to this presentation when it is broadcast here in NYC.
    For me the best Casta Diva aria is Rosa Ponselle’s. Although she died about 30? years ago and retired in her 30s, I never heard her in person, but knew people who had and am happy to have her recordings.
    Please keep up your good work and thanks for your knowledge and good taste.
    Cari saluti,

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