Farewell Norma

I had another look at the Canadian Opera Company’s Norma tonight, the closing performance of their fall season. It was both a chance to get a closer look as well as to see a slightly different cast.

Elza van den Heever took over from Sondra Radvanovsky for the last performances of the run, otherwise (as far as I know) it was the same cast as the one I saw weeks ago. But the chemistry is substantially different.

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Stephen Lord (Photo: Christian Steiner)

Tonight the musical highlight was the explosive chorus “Guerra, guerra! Le galliche selve” starring not just the singers but the COC Orchestra led by Stephen Lord. It seemed apt for a week in which we watched the 7th game of the World Series between two teams hungry for a championship, when the understanding would be to hold nothing back on the last day. I sit in the second row for the pleasure of watching the conductor, watching the orchestra players, and yes, being overwhelmed by the big sound of that orchestra. At that moment, when the chorus and orchestra let loose, we were eaten alive by the ferocious sound.

There were other wonderful moments. I am in awe of Isabel Leonard, who was not the same character opposite Sondra as opposite Elza. According to gossipy old google Sondra is 47, while Isabel is 34. Google doesn’t seem to know Elza’s age, which might be younger than 34. Towering six-foot tall Elza, who gave a wonderful portrayal in the COC’s Il trovatore a few years ago, is certainly a different Norma than Sondra, a powerful amazon presence whenever she appears, sometimes ferocious, sometimes deliciously vulnerable.

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Elza van den Heever (left) as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa (photo: Michael Cooper)

The duet “mira Norma” was another highlight, Elza and Isabel blending beautifully. I think Sondra is a better actor than Elza, but Elza is a very studious and careful singer, more precise in her pitch than Sondra. In the cadenzas in that duet, the two women were bang on pitch, rock solid.  I am reminded of something i probably have mentioned way too often, but some singers are really good at saving their energies, while others seem to sing the pants off of every note.  One of the things that blows me away about Sondra is how she seems to croon her ppp notes, saving herself in the process for those moments when she opens up and blows us away.  Elza, in contrast, puts it all out there for us, singing every note.  I don’t say that as a criticism, just an observation in a role where her sacrificial death at the end can seem to parallel what the singer does with (and to) their voice.

Russell Thomas too, the man who blew us away just a couple of days ago as the guest star of Centre Stage Gala, is another who knows how to save himself, in those moments when he was singing what seemed to be a loud crooning falsetto up top, expertly saving himself for those moments when he really needed to be able to erupt with a big voice.  The technique is astonishing, the high notes completely reliable, and always cutting through the orchestra’s big sound.  Russell was the one who put me in mind of the World Series, marshaling his energies and frequently defying expectations, by holding nothing back tonight.  As there’s no tomorrow for this production, he left it all out there tonight.  I think there was at least one extra high note I didn’t hear the first time, and the effort was stunning all night.  Where I was unable to tear my eyes off of Sondra on her night, tonight i was more intent on Russell than anyone else.

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Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma (photo: Michael Cooper)

I couldn’t stop wondering about those kids, though. Whereas my first time through I kept thinking about Trump and Clinton, (the resonances with the election in this opera about lying, infidelity and political pressures), tonight I was more bemused by the emotional blackmail throughout. I wonder what equivalents to psychotherapy one could get as a young druid. Those kids are going to need some serious couch time.

Freud was Druish, wasn’t he?

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