With an intricately-conceived production by Sir David McVicar that attempts to get at the Celtic roots of the setting with mixed results, the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Norma is interesting and fascinating to watch in HD in its production that can be seen in theatres around the country through FATHOM Events. From the woad-painted warriors that fill the stage in the opening scenes to the final immolation of the priestess and her lover behind a standing stone, this production draws you in to the emotional reality of Norma’s world. Back in the days when Gaul was essentially the Wild West with the Romans as the cowboys and the native Celts as the Indians.
And with the hiring of Sondra Radvanovsky, Joyce DiDonato and Joseph Calleja in the three principal roles, it sounds splendid. All three are absolutely on top of their games here, handling the intricacies of this bear of a Bel Canto with not just expertise but enormous amounts of emotion. And that’s really what sets this production apart and what makes seeing it in HD in the theatre such an interesting experience.
I had the pleasure of seeing Radvanovsky last year in the Lyric Opera’s production of Norma in Chicago. There her performance emphasized the grandeur and mystery of the priestess’ role, her queenliness and leadership of her people, supported by an intricate fantasy-inspired setting and costuming. She was regal. She was commanding. She led her followers with mystery and elaborate ceremony and barely softened in the scenes between herself and Agdalisa and her children. She stood tall and owned every second and her voice rang out with a glorious and fierce perfection.
In the Met’s production, the same singer emphasized Norma’s humanity, her soft heart, her love for all of her family, her friends and her people. She was humanized and human in every second, even when leading her tribe in worship. It is an absolutely striking portrait of a flawed and very human woman who is torn apart by love and religion. And you also heard it in Radvanovsky’s voice. There were points when it was not perfect, but it only added to the emotion of her singing and added emphasis to her performance.
I can’t speak for her or any other singer, but I know that when I sing, it is a LOT harder to get proper support when I’m sitting down. It’s even harder than that when I’m lying almost face down on the floor, or on my hands and knees. There is a LOT of singing like that happening in this production, particularly among the women. Norma crawls on a platform beneath a tree when she’s leading worship, Agdalisa sings part of her role lying face down on the ground, they both do a lot of singing from their knees or sitting on Norma’s bed in her house or doing groveling of various types. It’s very dramatic and it’s so, so hard to do. And sometimes their voices aren’t quite perfect from the strain. I don’t think that’s necessarily a detriment to what this production is attempting to achieve, but some people might. And when I say it’s not perfect, it’s very subtly not perfect, it’s not like they are blowing it, but you can sometimes see how hard it is. Especially in close-up.
It is the intimacy of this performance that I think is so very well-served by seeing it on screen instead of the Opera House. The cameras zoom in on these quiet, soft moments. We can see the singers’ expressions, and even though they’re selling it big for the cheap seats as it is the live broadcast of a live performance with a live audience, there’s immense subtlety here that’s amazing to watch. Especially in the second act, where Norma grapples with her desire for revenge and the women vow to be true to each other.
DiDonato plays a remarkable Agdalisa. With her short haircut, it’s a very St. Joan sort of interpretation here, which I really enjoyed. Her emotional journey from swooning love to renewed faith was a superb counterpoint to Norma’s maternal despair. And her singing was outstanding, fluidly matching Radvanovsky note for note in all the embellishments. I was privileged to see Elisabeth DeShong as Agdalisa in the Chicago production and found her tone to contrast better with Radvanovsky’s voice than DiDonato’s did. DiDonato and Radvanovsky’s timbres are too similar, especially when DiDonato is singing higher in her range. I personally like more of a contrast in my mezzo with a warmer, darker tone, but that’s a personal preference and DiDonato is absolutely wonderful and acts amazingly well. She’s brilliant here. I’m sure her Cendrillon later in the season will be fabulous.
Calleja’s interpretation of Pollione is also a delight. In his swaggering ladykiller first act, he’s like that backwards cap-wearing dudebro frat boy, so confident of his own superiority, you just want to smack him. It makes the women’s vow of solidarity all the more satisfying because he’s so odious. But in the final act, Calleja turns on the charm and shows so much warmth you can finally see why all the girls are falling for him. And his voice is just exceptional. I’d listen to him sing the phone book. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s tall and a commanding presence on the stage. It makes his being brought low at the end even stronger.
It is a very warm production all around with Matthew Rose as Oroveso wonderfully portraying a torn father losing his beloved child and Michelle Bradley as devoted Clothilde, nursemaid to Norma’s children. All were dealing with the very physical demands of singing this opera but still managed to look amazing in HD as they did it.
I wish I could have said as much of the production visuals. Yes, the forest of Gaul back when it was full of “barbarians” was probably a fairly spooky place. The trees looked splendid and the various large set pieces like Norma’s hut, standing stone, and Celtic shield were beautiful and dramatic. But I doubt anybody would have piled a bunch of severed heads around their holy tree where they would have had to have more ceremonies. When Agdalisa is singing about how she can see Pollione’s face and is so much in love, next to a stack of severed rotting heads, I mean does he look like one of them or something? I sat there wondering what that must have smelled like. Fortunately for the actors, they were plastic, but it really took me out of the moment and it’s very visible in HD.
Also, if McVicar is going for Celts, has he seen how ancient Celts dressed? Celts have always loved color. Celts and various Northern Europeans have been wearing plaid, herringbone, and stripes since before the first sample of Northern European cloth that has ever been authenticated in 900 BCE, pulled out of a Danish bog. It literally takes three seconds of Google to know that. Gorgeous natural dyes were available to them, existed, and were used liberally all the time. See the woad painted on the warriors, glorious red-brown from onion skins, hot pink from dandelion roots, all manner of yellow and green dye stuffs. And, yet, you get a forest full of people in murky gray until in the second act Norma busts out the dark brown velveteen. It had me gritting my teeth.
Better was the fact that her house was actually a round Celtic wattle-style house. That is exactly what she would have lived in and even the pottery, the chariot wheel and most of the rest of the stuff looked pretty good. But really, why so gray? The chorus was great, they should at least get to look like individuals.
But what is exceptional about the Met’s HD theatrical production of this opera, presented as part of the Met’s Live in HD program through FATHOM Events is something you do NOT get at the Opera House, are the supplemental interviews and peeks backstage. These make the Met’s HD production a treasure in itself. Even if you are able to attend at the Opera House, the close-ups and interviews are wonderful supplements for any opera lover.
Ably emceed by Susanna Phillips, who will be appearing as Musetta in La Boheme later this season, there are brief but incredibly engaging interviews with the cast and their work on this production with this cast and director. Radvanovsky had incredibly insightful things to say about how the emotional intimacy of this production made her approach the role differently. And DiDonato spoke eloquently about Adgalisa’s emotional journey. There was discussion with the director and an incredible look backstage on how the crew puts it all together, including learning more about how they manage their rotating schedule of operas and sets with their state of the art technology. It was absolutely fascinating.
All, in all, it is well worth seeing the production in theatres if you are unable to attend the live performance in New York. The quality absolutely shines through on the screen, the sound is superb and the supplemental materials are a true value-add.
Tickets for the rest of the Met’s Season are available through FATHOM Events here.