The Lyric Opera’s production of Norma running through February 24th is a triumph in every way. From masterful singing in every role to stellar production design and costuming. There’s a treat for the ears and eyes every minute of the performance.
Dubbed “the pinnacle role” by none other than Dame Joan Sutherland, Norma is one of the most challenging soprano roles in all of opera. It requires a great singer and a fine actress to carry this opera on her back, for that’s what Norma truly does. She’s onstage for nearly all the opera’s more than two and half hour running time and when she’s not, everyone is talking about her. And the Lyric has found a truly great Norma in Sondra Radvanovsky who has played the role at the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera and the Canadian Opera among others. And you can see why. Radvanovsky commands the stage and is riveting to watch even in the moments when she’s not singing. And as Norma is the High Priestess of the Druids, she needs to be commanding to get across the importance of her betrayal of her people with the Roman soldier Pollione, and Radvanovsky is commanding and far more.
Norma has great moments of public ceremony, and small ones of quiet, personal reflection, and Radvanvosky is amazing in both. Her vocal abilities are exceptional, but her acting is also superb and she shows us Norma’s conflicting loyalties and emotions and inner turmoil throughout. Her calm decision at the end and the serenity with which she seals her own fate and saves her children ring true and seem natural and not overwrought – as much as self-immolation can ever seem a natural choice. Radvanovsky’s voice floats with seeming effortlessness despite the complexity and demands of Bellini’s score.
In Russell Thomas, the Lyric has also brought in an experienced hand in the role, having played Pollione in LA, Toronto and San Francisco. Thomas’ voice soars, even while playing the cad, and because the acting is important in this role as well, his change of heart at the end is genuinely touching, which it needs to be. And as someone who in the opera we’ve only seen behaving badly toward women, his turn toward redemption feels right.
And enough good things cannot be said about Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa, Norma’s friend, junior priestess and rival in Pollione’s affections. While this opera is glorious every time Radvanovsky opens her mouth, it’s when she and DeShong sing together that this production is at its most mesmerizing musically as they match each other vocal flourish for vocal flourish and emotion for emotion. Their portrayal of the affection and friendship between these women is one of the most delightful things about this performance. You believe that Adalgisa cares more about her relationship with Norma than with Pollione and feels the betrayal of her friend as keenly as she feels her own. And I don’t know how they could find two singers who sound better together than DeShong and Radvanovsky.
Andrea Silvestrelli as Oroveso, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clotilde and Jesse Donner as Flavio round out the principle cast and are also excellent with superb singing and the right choices for their characters. Every role has its moment to shine and does so in these able hands.
Kudos also have to go to director Kevin Newbury and set designer David Korins for creating the Game of Thrones-inspired fantasy set and staging. It’s a truly grand, fantasy Iron Age fortress, unlike any that actually existed in Gaul of 50 C.E. It’s the sort of massive and eye-catching production style that we’ve all been spoiled into expecting by watching fantasy movies and television series for the past decade or so. This production delivers, from the details of the fortress, to the symbolic use of the trees, to the lighting design and opening and closing of the gate at various times, the larger-than-life aspect of opera couldn’t be better supported.
The costumes by Jessica Jahn, clearly suggesting barbarians in the north, but clearly not of any real era, support the grandeur of the music and staging to perfection. Putting the majority of the cast in gray and then Norma in shades of cream, make her stand out like a torch in the dim, wintry north. Putting the Romans in black and red is similar to their actual costumes, but an interesting fantasy take.
The production is incredibly impressive, but one quibble that seems ridiculously minor, but actually isn’t. During the opera’s first act Norma’s most important duty as High Priestess is to cut the sacred mistletoe. In this production, she does so from an amazing, white tree suspended in mid-air over the stage. It’s brilliant design and looks like a special effect even though you can see the wires. The piece she “cuts” from the tree is white with red berries. No. The entire reason mistletoe is a sacred plant in northern Europe and the reason that we still use it today during the holidays is that mistletoe with its gray-green leaves and white berries remains green even during winter. It, like the fir trees we bring in and decorate for Christmas, is used during mid-winter rituals because it is green and alive and symbolic of rebirth. It’s important that Norma has profaned a symbol of rebirth because of her choices at the end of the opera. Making it snowy white and seemingly dead loses the symbolism. However, it is literally the only fault I could find with this production.
Go and see it immediately.
Photography by Andrew Cioffi and Cory Weaver