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Cassette recordings of Metropolitan Opera matinee broadcasts from the 1980s make fine companions for the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Hillsborough to Richmond to hear performances by the Virginia Opera. On my last trip, a relevant question was posed to a long-ago panel consisting of Edward Downes, William Weaver, Speight Jenkins, and Alberta Masiello, a retired assistant conductor of the Met. "Which was the more important in opera? Beautiful singing or good acting?" Most of the panel answered that an equal marriage of the two was the ideal, but Masiello added a caveat. Sheer beauty of sound is so important in bel canto operas, and especially Bellini's Norma, that she'd take the old "stand and deliver" style in that opera. Such reflections echoed on April 2 as I savored a dynamic staging of Norma in the 3,366-seat Landmark Theater. The acoustics of the hall are much better than the size would lead one to expect. The only problem is a drop in the singers' volume when they face away from the audience; how much depends on the sheer power of the individual artists.
Under the expert eye and baton of Artistic Director Peter Mark, the co-ordination between the cast on stage and the orchestra in the pit was first rate. (The musicians for this production were provided by the Richmond Symphony.) The horns played with subtlety, suggesting the atmosphere of the forests sacred to the Druids. Percussion underlined the ceremonial and war-like episodes. The string sections spun out Bellini's long melodies with unanimity. The cellos, led by Neal Cary, underlined the pathos in Act III as Norma contemplates murdering her children as part of her revenge for Pollione's betrayal of her illicit love. (Cary is familiar to all long-time attendees of the Eastern Music Festival as the principal of the festival's professional orchestra.)
All previous stagings of this opera that I have seen have been very static – the principals pretty much just stood and delivered the essential melodies that are the heart of Bellini's art. Some moved their arms around, semaphore-like. The choir was even more sedentary. All this made Virginia Opera director John Pascoe's vital blocking, with most of the leads kept in motion and different elements of Druid society given meaningful stage business, all the more welcome. By way of background, Druid law required that priestesses must be virgins; the drama in Norma centers on several affairs introduced in a meeting between Norma and the virgin acolyte Adalgisa in Act II. As Adalgisa confesses her seduction by a man, Norma paces, reflecting how like her own seduction it was, down to the same "lines." What an intensified dramatic moment it is as the Roman lothario steps onstage just as Adalgisa names her tempter – Pollione, the father of Norma's children. The production abounds in the telling gesture and subtle touches that enhance the drama.
(Reading Pascoe's biography, I discovered that I had attended his directorial/design debut in Rameau's Platée with a then rising star, Renée Fleming, at the 1986 Spoleto Festival USA. I look forward to more opportunities to see such positive direction, such a welcome contrast to the egocentric directors who work at odds to the composer for flashy novelty.)
As suggested in the introduction to this review, is not enough to bring drama alone to this opera – bel canto is required, too. In his exemplary pre-performance lecture, Glenn Winters focused on the popular misunderstanding of the term bel canto. Instead of involving merely "beautiful singing," the heart of Bellini is his ability to spin out long flowing melodies.
Virginia Opera's principal singers were able to deliver these seamless songs in spades. Dramatic soprano Fabiana Bravo combined a formidable stage presence with a robust voice and pleasing timbre. It has no weak breaks across its dynamic range from hushed pianos to raging fury. In Act II, Bravo's high notes were like a fusillade of daggers aimed at the faithless Pollione. Her "Casta diva" was the perfect amalgam of the virginal priestess and the sensual woman at the heart of Norma's character. Bravo returned to the company after successful runs in Virginia as Le Nozze's Countess in 2000-2001 and in the title role of Tosca.
Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi, making her Virginia Opera debut as Adalgisa, was a major discovery. She possesses a huge voice; there was little attenuation of its sound even when she sang with her back to the audience. Her nuanced application of color and telling use of dynamics were most welcome. (This Handel opera lover would be delighted to hear her in that repertory as well as in some of the big "pants" roles such as Octavian in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier.) There was plenty of metal in the tone of tenor German Villar, who sang the role of the faithless Roman proconsul, Pollione. He has a fine, ringing top, and he was able to refine his dynamics and tone to convey the officer's anguish in Act IV. This was Villar's debut with Virginia Opera; his performance augurs well for his return next fall as Don José in Bizet's Carmen.
The secondary roles were solidly cast with bass Todd Robinson as a towering Oroveso, tenor Zachary Stains as the centurion Flavio, and mezzo-soprano Shoshannah Marote as Norma's confidante Clotilda.
The four sets effectively suggested the sacred oak forest of the Druids in Act I, Norma's megalithic quarters in Act II, and the coarse stone public areas of the Druids. I have one minor quibble. Much is made in the text about the crescent new moon and about the crescent shape of the ceremonial knife used to cut mistletoe for augury. Most of the sets were dominated by what I surmised to be a full moon seen dimly through either leaves or mists. The original scenic design was by Beni Montressor, with additional scenery designed by Allen Charles Klein. This scenery was re-conceptualized by director John Pascoe who began his operatic career as a set designer. Costumes owned by AT Jones and Sons were designed by John Lehmeyer. Additional costumes for Bravo as Norma were designed by director Pascoe. Assistant conductor Joseph Walsh prepared the well-drilled chorus. The sets were very effectively illuminated by Jeff Davis. James P. McGough designed the wigs and makeup.