Success Is Found In Norma’s Simplicity

By Alan Conter

The Globe and Mail, Canada
Sept 20 2005

Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
L’Opera de Montreal
Bernard Labadie, conductor
At Place des Arts in Montreal

L’Opera de Montreal set the bar awfully high in launching its
26th season with Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. While Bellini’s 1831
masterpiece sits pretty solidly in the pantheon of great opera, only
a few productions really live up to the extraordinary demands of the
work. The company last staged it 23 years ago.

The challenge of Norma is not that it’s especially intricate; in fact,
it’s the reverse. Bellini took a bold step in composing a score where
the singers are left very much on their own, supported by a small
orchestra that plays beautiful yet relatively simple melodies.

Norma succeeds or fails on the range and colour of the voices.

Bellini asks a lot of his singers as musicians and actors. Felice
Romani’s libretto is intensely tragic where love, passion, duty and
deception are interwoven.

On Saturday night, l’Opera de Montreal pulled it off. Anyone who’s
ever seen a production of Norma in a post-Maria Callas world knows
that the audience is on pins and needles until the Druid High
Priestess finishes Casta Diva early in Act One. Will she bring the
right simmering intensity and have the power to climb the heights of
this aria with ease? If she can do it, you know the evening will be
all right. If she can’t, well, that’s a tragedy of another order.

As the final chords of Norma’s invocation dissipated in Salle Wilfred
Pelletier at Montreal’s Place des Arts, the audience roared its
approval of Hasmik Papian as Norma.

Papian, an Armenian soprano, is not new to the role. In fact, she has
spent a good part of the last 10 years making it her own throughout
Europe and now, increasingly, on this side of the Atlantic.

Her interpretation of the powerful and tormented spiritual leader
of the oppressed Gauls is full on. She has bold and richly textured
voice, and can act. Act Two can unravel into a series of ill-considered
melodramas with a less capable lead. Norma’s internal struggle over
whether to spare her children infamy and enslavement by murdering
them or sparing their lives and committing them to an uncertain fate
was entirely believable.

American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich was a fine Adalgisa, the younger
priestess who is seduced by the Roman pro-consul Pollione then
discovers he is the father of Norma’s children. She and Papian sang
wonderfully together.

Another American, Antonio Nagore, was Pollione, the Roman with
severe commitment problems. He is clearly a talented actor with a
solid and broad vocal range. However, on Saturday night, he seemed
to be suffering a bit; a slight hoarseness crept insidiously into
his singing from time to time.

The Polish bass Daniel Borowoski was an imposing Oroveso, the high
priest who ultimately must sacrifice his daughter and her foreign

Two up-and-coming Canadian singers rounded out the cast. They’re both
members of the company’s Atelier lyrique. Thomas Macleay, who has been
building a career singing early and contemporary music in Europe,
the United States and at home, is now showing up more frequently on
the opera stage. His Flavio, a friend to Pollione, was clean and crisp.

Beverly McArthur’s Clothilde, servant to Norma, fit well with the
remarkable singing of the star sopranos.

As you may have read in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, l’Opera de Montreal
cancelled an upcoming production, Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex,
because the company is experiencing a financial shortfall. It would
be have been a largely homegrown production.

Norma, on the other hand, is largely an import.

The beautiful costumes and sets were by John Conklin for the
Metropolitan Opera in New York. American Steve Pickover worked with
British director John Copley on the stage direction, also for the
Met. Montrealer Luc Prairie lit all of it stunningly. The music
direction was the work of Bernard Labadie.

The orchestra and chorus were also local — the Orchestre metropolitain
will be in the pit for the entire season, given the labour dispute
at l’Orchestre symphonique de Montreal.

Certainly the audience on Saturday night loved the show, and the next
opera, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Etoile, will be largely homegrown.

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