PostHeaderIcon “Norma”, Lyric’s New Vocal Gem

The opera “Norma” holds a special place in Lyric Opera’s legacy. It was first performed during Lyric’s opening season (1954) by the iconic soprano, Maria Callas. Yet, those who were in the audience at last Saturday’s opening night performance heard a performance by acclaimed soprano,  Sondra Radvanovsky, that could hold a candle to Callas’ legendary appearance. Her performance was replete with vocal fireworks fused with a portrayal of intense emotion. She received a deservedly thunderous ovation at the end, .

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma

I attend the opera hoping to hear fine voices, revel in the visual splendor along with seeking imaginative staging. Last Saturday, I was enthralled by the ravishing vocal performance of Radvanovsky as a Druid priestess, strongly supported by tenor, Russell Thomas, as Pollione, her cheating lover, and Elizabeth DeShong as Adelgisa, her follower but also romantic rival. Their stirring performances, particularly her duets with Adelgisa and Pollione near the end of Act 2, compensated for a production lacking visual splendor and inventive staging.

“Norma”, viewed as the pinnacle of bel canto opera, is not a standard of the opera repertoire, unlike perennial favorites “La Boheme”, “Magic Flute” or “Madame Butterfly”. It requires a special soprano who can handle the vocal demands of (Vincenzo) Bellini‘s devilishly difficult score that runs the gamut from thrilling high notes to soft pianissimos. It is also a killer role that requires physical stamina since Norma is on stage for nearly the entire opera. That explains why it has not appeared on Lyric’s calendar since the 1996-97 season. Radvanovsky is currently one of opera world’s reigning Normas, a world-class artist who is a Berwyn-born Chicago native.

Russell Thomas & Sondra Radvanovsky

Russell Thomas & Sondra Radvanovsky

I exited the opera house captivated by Radvanovsky’s portrayal. What I found disappointing was that director Kevin Newbury, who worked such magic with “Bel Canto”, was unable to instill this production with much vitality. He claimed he tried to give this tragic tale a “Game of Thrones”  look. I failed to see much of a “Thrones” connection apart from a lot of black leather onstage.

Newbury was not helped by Lyric’s one-size-fits-all set design. The huge, dark gray set worked well enough for the opening forest setting with its sacred bough. But it was a set short for more indoor settings. Norma’s two young children should not have had to sleep on the stage floor but in a home befitting a high priestess. Perhaps Lyric busted its budget with “Les Troyens” and needed to economize. Its one attempt at visual splendor was an impressive, oversize bull that appeared only at the end.

“Norma”, however, is an opera that one attends less for scenery than to hear vocal fireworks, particularly in the title role. Judged in that regard, Lyric delivered handsomely.

There are five more opportunities to catch this pleasurable, seldom-performed, score. “Norma” runs through February 25 at the Civic Opera House. To order tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org.

 

 

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