Chicago Opera Review: NORMA (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on January 29, 2017

in Music,Theater-Chicago


The second of two bel canto operas performed this season, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is a far more satisfying experience than Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was. For one, the story is more compelling, portraying heroic sacrifice rather than madness. In terms of musical enjoyment, the cast’s finest singer is on stage almost constantly, which means we get plenty of opportunity to hear Sondra Radvanovsky’s impressive voice. And whereas the staging of Lucia felt uncomfortably claustrophobic, the set of Norma is expansive, even grandiose. The result is a memorable and engaging production that has much to recommend itself.

An historical drama set in Gaul around the time of its conquest by the Romans in the first century BC, Norma is both blissfully distant in time and space from the present of its original 1831 Milan production as well as present-day Chicago. Librettist Felice Romani took the story from French poet Alexandre Soumet’s “Norma, ou L’infanticide.” Its eponymous heroine is the high priestess of the Druids, who has two children by Pollione, the Roman proconsul of Gaul. When Pollione is recalled to Rome, he declares his love for Adalgisa, another priestess, and begs her to come with him. The drama of the story centers on this love triangle of Norma, Adalgisa, and Pollione. What’s unique about Norma is that the women don’t fight with each other over a man, but against their love for Pollione as they try to remain true to the goddess whom they serve.

Lyric Opera favorite Sondra Radvanovsky, seen two seasons ago in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, returns in the even more formidable role of Norma. Radvanovsky’s power and expressiveness work equally well soaring above the chorus, singing one of her role’s many duets, and conveying the delicate emotion of “Casta diva.” Her vocal control is nearly absolute in terms of dynamics, breathing, and coloratura. And if that’s not enough, Radvanovsky has the physical stature and acting skills to make her character truly noble.

Unfortunately, Russell Thomas, making his Lyric debut, is not able to do the same with Pollione. While his gorgeous tenor voice is everything it needs to be, Thomas somehow doesn’t seem convincing as a man who women would forsake life and country for. Ryan Opera Center alumna Elizabeth DeShong delights as Adalgisa. A mezzo-soprano whose voice matches Radvanovsky’s for sheer agility and technique, but with a lighter touch, DeShong deftly portrays the role of a young priestess caught between love and devotion. And Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli returns as Oroveso, Norma’s father. This creates a nice balance between voice parts and vocal ranges.

Kevin Newbury, who most recently directed the premiere of Bel Canto at Lyric, returns in this co-production of Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, Canadian Opera Company, and Gran Teatre del Liceu. The look and feel of the production, while obviously inspired by HBO’s wildly popular series Game of Thrones, does in no way copy it directly. David Korins’ monumental set does double duty as great hall and temple, with its massive wooden pillars, bull’s head statuary, and stored weaponry. A large door/gate on the far wall opens onto a sacred grove, allowing necessary set changes, movements of people, and backlighting. Jessica Jahn’s costumes and Sarah Hatten’s makeup and wigs combine to create a sort of Celtic punk aesthetic that is interesting and original, and helps to convey a sense of otherness, of remoteness in time and place. In particular, I like the face tattoos that adorn Norma, Oroveso, Adalgisa, and others.

Fortunately, Newbury’s direction doesn’t rely on Lyric’s new stage lifts, turntable, or projectors, which have been overused in previous productions this season. Instead, it allows the magic to come alive in a more primitive manner congruent with Norma’s ancient setting.

It’s hard to believe that the 2016-17 season is almost already over! Yet to come are Bizet’s Carmen and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, not to mention the concerts, recitals and other performances. Lyric will announce the 2017-18 season at a special preview next Tuesday, February 7. One thing we can already look forward to is the collaboration between Lyric Opera and Joffrey Ballet in a new production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice.

photos by Cory Weaver and Andrew Cioffi

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on February 24, 2017
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

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