I rather like recordings from the Macerata Festival where the performances take place in the enormous amphitheatre of the Arena Sferisterio. Bellini’s Norma is a good choice for such as setting and the 2016 production directed by Luigi di Gangi and Ugo Giacomazzi makes good use of the space. It also uses string. The sets are stringy. The very scruffy Gauls wear shapeless tunics with lots of string over them. The slightly smarter Romans also wear string. And everybody plays with string. There are more strings than in the Princeton Physics Department. There’s lots of face paint too. The production also makes use of a spectacular multi-coloured lighting plot but, apart from the visuals, is pretty conventional and straightforward.
I keep trying with Bellini’s I Puritani. People I respect admire it a lot but I just cannot find a way to like it despite there being, undoubtedly, some very fine music in Acts 2 and 3. I think there are, essentially, two problems and I could maybe cope with either in isolation but taken together my brain just starts to turn off. The first is plot and there are two huge problems with this piece. It’s complete garbage historically. It makes Donizetti’s Tudor operas look like Geoffrey Elton. But worse, it makes no sense in it’s own terms. It’s just a string of improbable coincidences. The second problem is emotional dissonance. Too often the emotional tenor of the music is just way inappropriate to the stage action. This is common to all bel canto of course and on its own I can deal. I just can’t take the two things together.
The recording of Bellini’s Norma made at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2016 is about as good as video recordings of opera go. It has it all; a well thought through and well executed production concept, very fine musical values, great acting, judicious camera work and top notch sound and picture. It doesn’t get much better.
Kevin Newbury’s production of Bellini’s Norma made it to Toronto via San Francisco, Barcelona and Chicago with Sondra Radvanovsky singing the title role (at least some of the time) in all four cities. It was recorded for DVD and Blu-ray at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2015. Watching the DVD didn’t change my opinion of the production. Here’s what I said about it on opening night in Toronto:
Kevin Newbury’s production is perhaps best described as serviceable. I have seen various rather desperate efforts made to draw deep meaning from it but I really don’t think there is any. That said, it looks pretty decent and is efficient. The single set allows seamless transitions between scenes which is a huge plus. So, what does it look like? It’s basically a sort of cross between a barn and a temple with a back wall that can raised or moved out of the way to expose the druids’ sacred forest. There’s also a sort of two level cart thing which characters ascend when they have something especially important to sing. Costumes were said to have been inspired by Game of Thrones; animal skins, leather, tattoos (which actually don’t really read except up very close), flowing robes. Norma herself appears to be styled, somewhat oddly, on a Klingon drag queen. The lighting is effective and there are some effective pyrotechnics at the end. All in all a pretty good frame for the story and the singing.
There did seem to be far fewer pyrotechnics in the Barcelona staging though (either that or the video direction pretty much ignores them).
Last night saw the Ensemble Studio’s big main stage performance. Rather than perform one of the COC’s current productions (hard to imagine how they could cast one from the current line up) we got scenes from three operas; two of them from the COC’s current season. They were performed with the orchestra on stage in front of the backdrop to the opening scene from the current Die Zauberflöte and in concert dress rather than costume (more or less, there were some nods to the roles in question) and with some blocking as far as limiting movement to the front of the stage permitted.
Today at 2.30pm Voicebox:Opera in Concert are performing Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. It’s Bellini’s take on Bandello rather than Shakespeare, not a lot happens and the orchestral music is ho hum so a semistaged version with piano isn’t a bad bet if the singing is good. Juliet is the up and coming Caitlin Wood. Romeo, on whom much depends, is Anita Krause. It’s at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.
Back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at Norma. This time with Elza van den Heever singing the title role. Van den Heever has a more conventional voice than Sondra Radvanovsky. It’s perhaps not as dramatic and distinct but it’s an accurate, flexible instrument with plenty of colours and big enough for the role. She’s also every bit as good as an actress so I don’t think the production suffers from losing its “headliner”. Russell Thomas impressed again. He’s so much better as Pollione than he was as Don José. The acting is convincing and he really gets the chance to let rip here with what is a truly glorious tenor voice. All the obvious comparisons suggest and are not ridiculous. Isabel Leonard was also very fine last night and the duets with van den Heever were perhaps the highlight of the show. Hat tip too to Charles Sy who never sounded out of place even when Thomas was singing all guns blazing, It’s only two years since he was singing in a student production of HMS Pinafore.