This isn’t your usual Norma. It’s an opera that requires talent and skill far above and beyond what’s usual or normal. Believe the hype about Sondra Radvanovsky, who is singing the lead in Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, in a cast as strong as any I’ve ever seen for a Canadian Opera Company production. I saw it tonight and am happy to be seeing it again.
I’m very lucky that I’ve seen Radvanovsky enough times that I now begin to know some of her mannerisms, to recognize certain quirks of her performance. In her longest roles she knows how to save her energy, brilliantly marshaling her resources for key phrases, climactic scenes. And then when the going gets tough she gets a look in her eyes that’s totally ferocious, such that if you were the high notes printed in the score you’d be scared of what she’s about to do to you. She seems to click into a higher gear, get more alert, more energized, her eyes widening and the scene and the music effortlessly being devoured as though she were a shark and the whole theatre full of people were her dinner. She effortlessly inhales us, her voice swallowing two thousand of us in one gulp. Yes she is a humble presence, especially during curtain calls, but in those moments when she clicks into that take no prisoners mode of singing she could be a thousand feet tall, her voice undaunted by any big orchestration or chorus competing with her for our attention. Oh sure, there are other people onstage with her and they were good. But at those key moments she totally makes everyone, everything vanish.
I guess you can tell that I like what she did.
There are times I think of opera as escapism, especially lately. I’ve been watching way too much CNN although tonight I will turn on Saturday Night Live, which begins in a few minutes. I couldn’t help noticing that maybe the story of Norma isn’t so old. A man who has kids with one woman falls in love with another younger woman, and would run off with her. Act I could be the story of either of the US Presidential nominees, although when we get to the second act it turns out that the Druids and Romans are better behaved than our contemporary liars and cheaters. And why didn’t I realize before, that if a serial monogamist has kids from a previous wife that he left, the excellence of the kids is probably more a testimonial to the mom than the dad? Yes I was fitting the moderns to the operatic template like paper dolls, trying on outfits, Norma sometimes reminding me of Ivana confronting Melania, sometimes reminding me more of HRC as she tells a colossal lie with a straight face to a crowd of people. And perhaps people used to leap into pyres at the ends of stories to spare us the endless hours of dissection on CNN, a merciful option that unfortunately is missing from the 21st century version. But pardon me, I digress.
Kevin Newsbury’s production is recognizably the usual story, unencumbered by a directorial overlay. We’re in a world reminiscent of “Game of Thrones” which is to say that they don’t get in the way of the story. Stephen Lord brings his high octane conducting to the orchestra pit, holding nothing back.
Yes there were other singers besides Sondra Radvanovsky, and they were quite good. Russell Thomas was a better fit tonight as Pollione than in Carmen last year (when he was quite good), the voice effortlessly soaring to a ton of high notes, and an especially good casting choice considering the powerful sound emanating from the pit thanks to Lord. It was great to hear Isabel Leonard again, a beautiful technique up to all the challenges Bellini threw her way, and a tone that blended perfectly with Radvanovsky. Dimitriy Ivashchenko too was a welcome return, the same big bold sound he made as Hunding a couple of years ago but entirely Italianate this time.
Among such a talented group, the two young Canadians in smaller parts weren’t at all out of place, Charles Sy as Flavio and Aviva Fortunata as Clotilde. And the COC Chorus sounded great too.
The time flies by on the wings of the bel canto. I’m looking forward to seeing this again. Norma will be presented at the Four Seasons Centre by the Canadian Opera Company until November 5th. Don’t miss it.