Boston Lyric Opera’s recent production of Bellini’s Norma would have been the first to be mounted in the city in 23 years, since Boston Bel Canto Opera presented the opera at Jordan Hall with dramatic soprano Joanna Porackova in the title role in 1997.
When BLO cancelled its five scheduled performances of the work at the Emerson Majestic Theater because of the coronavirus pandemic, the company decided to record the final dress rehearsal and share it with listeners online. I am reviewing that stream.
Since BLO announced cancellation of their performances by 9 or 10 March, I feel that the recorded dress rehearsal of 11 March was intended to be sung by the soloists in full voice, with no marking or singing half volume. I also heard no stage movement by singers at any time, suggesting that all were standing still to sing in best possible sound. I heard an even balance between the orchestra and soloists volume-wise, not indicating any spotlighting of vocalists over orchestra. This would seem like a studio recording procedure to me. Overall, the results recording engineer Antonio Oliart achieved for WCRB came up to the station’s high standards.
BLO took the standard nine cuts, which I used in my 1997 Norma and the Met used in its broadcasts from 1943, 1944 & 1954 with Zinka Milanov. These came in the concluding coda sections of a number, and in deletion of the second verse of both Pollione’s and Norma’s cabalettas which is standard procedure unless the singer is to ornament the repeated verse.
Conductor David Angus led the fabulous BLO orchestra with sparkling energy and obvious expertise in securing both brilliance and subtlety from his ensemble. The BLO chorus was rock-solid in crisp attacks and rousing enthusiasm, particularly in the “War” chorus in the second act.
In the supporting roles of Clotilde and Flavio, both Robyn Marie Lamp and Omar Najmi sounded excellent in their respective dialogues with Norma and Pollione. Lamp is an Akin Emerging Artist with BLO; Najmi, an Emerging Artists alumnus.
Of the four principal soloists, the Oroveso of bass-baritone Alfred Walker deserves the most note. He put across his two aria-and-male chorus scenes commendably with strong, assertive tone coupled with consummate legato phrasing.
Tenor Jonathan Burton as Pollione displayed a fine spinto voice of considerable size (as far as we could tell from the broadcast), but not much elegance in delivery. In his aria, he omitted the written high C which everyone waits for, opting for a lower alternative, though we did hear a sustained top B-Flat at the end of his “Deh protegge” aria which the Pollione usually adds. He gave a fine account of his duet with Adalgisa, albeit a bit lacking in mezza voice volume nuance. In interpreting his confrontations with Norma, he showed initial arrogance, and, in the final scene, he telegraphed admission of his failure to comprehend Norma’s noble omnipresence.
The male soloists projected their words much more clearly, even on high notes than did the ladies. This is typical since female singing voices need to distort (modify) pronunciation to facilitate some notes, particularly in the top range.
As Adalgisa, mezzo Sandra Piques Eddy disappointed those expecting to hear a lush, rich sonority. Her rather thin tone lacked focus in solo lines, often with lapses in pitch, yet in her scene with Pollione, she proved dramatically effective, exhibiting conflicting emotions in their interchanges. Her best moments came in the harmonized segments of the duets with Norma. And we should add that Bellini wrote Adalgisa for a soprano, not for a mezzo. Bellini gives her three high C’s to sing which are rarely ever done via simple omission or lower transposition. The BLO Norma played in score pitch except the “Mira, O Norma” scene beginning with “Deh, con te” which they transposed down two half steps from F major to E-flat major.
The company miscast soprano Elena Stikhina in the title role. Hers is not a Norma voice of heroic declamation, but, rather, one of full lyricism. The role requires 13 high C’s, all of which she sang beautifully. Norma always adds a high C at the conclusion of the “Ah, bello a me” cabaletta, plus an occasional high D at the end of the first act finale trio (Stikhina did not do this high D).
In several crucial places, though, she lacked precise agility. The pacing of Stikhina’s enunciation, especially in recitatives, needed more space between phrases for better comprehension and dramatic impact. The chromatic note passages and those written in close diatonic scale figurations required more accented attacks to be accurate. There was too much approximation of the notes rather than all of them being dead center in intonation. Of course, such florid singing is more difficult to execute with large voices. While she generally satisfied in her arias, her work in the duo couplets with Adalgisa conveyed her warmth of tone to best advantage.
Sadly, engaging characterization absented itself from Stikhina’s portrayal. One never heard any semblance of the anger, jealousy, frustration or fury which so many legendary, definitive Normas have given to this Bel Canto cornerstone role.
In all fairness, one must remember that at this dress rehearsal ran to an empty house, without an audience to fire up the singers. Nevertheless, we bestow our high praise and sincere gratitude on Boston Lyric Opera for having brought this glorious opera to our fair city again.
The stream will be available for a month on WCRB and on the BLO website.
Vocal coach Bradley Pennington is founder and AD of Boston Bel Canto Opera.