By Raymond Beegle
"Chaste queen, who silvers these sacred and ancient trees, turn to us your beautiful countenance” the Druid Priestess sings to the moon. It is described in Bellini’s score as La luna splende in tutta sua luce, but the object to which Norma prays in this new Metropolitan Opera production, is a stark mat-white disc resembling the top of a round banquet table. Moonlight can be enchanting, but certainly not in this gloomily lit production which cast a relentless pall over every scene regardless of its dramatic tone. Equally gloomy were the squat black objects encircling the stage which one supposes to be a reference to the soaring white stones of Stonehenge.
One can’t help but wonder what kind of voice Giuditta Pasta possessed for Bellini to entrust her with this virtually impossible role. It demands a voice of dramatic dimensions which can display warmth as well as grandeur; lyric cantilena and legato; the ability to spin pianissimos; and a highly refined control of fioratura, especially in the cascading chromatic passages of the first aria. In the Metropolitan’s history, as far as we have auditory record, there has not been a “perfect” Norma. Zinka Milanov perhaps came closest, but she was unable, as a true dramatic soprano, to manage all of the coloratura sections with accuracy and grace. Callas of course sang these florid parts superlatively, and presented a staggering dramatic presence, but her murky middle voice and slow oscillation of pitch in fortissimos and pianissimos undermined the magic she so often evoked. The performances of Joan Sutherland, Monserat Caballe, Elena Suliotis, and Jane Eaglen were either dramatically tepid or technically inadequate.
All of the requirements of this formidable role appear in sequence at the outset of Norma’s appearance on stage, and Hasmik Papian made clear, as each of these presented itself, that she was sorely miscast. Her voice, although attractive at times, does not have the magnitude, the agility, or the beauty of tone absolutely necessary for a successful reading. At the opening declamation, Sedizioze voci, voci di Guerra one heard the husky tone of an artists who over-sings. The phrasing in the aria was clumsy and the coloratura seemed just a flurry of random pitches, having almost nothing to do with the notes in the score. There was a sense that the evening ahead of us would be long, and so it was. Franco Farina, as well, was in technical difficulties, and his unsuccessful struggle to manage a slow wavering vibrato precluded any possibility of plausible acting. In fact among the singers, the drama itself, its complex course of conflicting emotions, vows of love and friendship, indictments and apologies, seemed to be a secondary issue.
Each member of the cast appeared to function in an invisible isolated cylinder, solely intent on his/her vocal mission. Even the technically superb Dolora Zajick delivered her beautiful, free legato phrases to no ostensible purpose but the sound itself. Her second act duet with Norma, a plea for the lives of her children, and an ecstatic declaration of eternal devotion, had no more intensity than a daytime television drama. This, unfortunately, was the standard throughout, and weighed heavily on the credibility of the final sacrificial gestures of Pollione and Norma. Vitalij Kowalijow raised standards with his beautiful ringing voice and compelling portrayal as leader of the Druids and father of their high priestess, but the musical highlight of the evening was the wonderfully sung men’s choruses in the second act. Chorus master Donald Palumbo has proven to be one of the company’s greatest assets throughout the season, guaranteeing memorable moments of musical excellence in every performance.
The conductor, Maurizio Bernini did not often give clear downbeats, and once phrases were begun they moved in a desultory and aimless manner. The introduction to Casta Diva, for example, played so marvelously by principal flutist Michael Parloff, was undermined by the flaccid push and pull of the accompanying triplets. Singers’ entrances were generally tentative under Bernini’s direction, and both cast and conductor had the annoying mannerism of slowing the ends of phrases. One cannot fault the brilliant members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra on this account – they are bound to follow the baton – one can only marvel at how they are able to assume the personality night after night, of the various gentlemen wielding that baton – for better or for worse