Bellini’s Norma has a singular mystique among opera-goers. Although fans of German repertoire dismiss it as insubstantial, Richard Wagner himself was an admirer of the work and acknowledged that a great deal of its power relies in its unhindered melodic flow that translate sentiments with unusual nobility. The fact that this simplicity that eludes explanation is capable of such expressive power is probably Norma’s mystery – and also its main difficulty for performers. A single mistake is enough to ruin a sublime moment – and it is not really difficult for a singer to make a mistake in a work that demands so much from its soloists. Nevertheless, even if it is true that this is not a challenging orchestral score, it is one entirely consistent of effects: if those arpeggi for strings do not display crystal-clear sound and intonation, if those sostenuto notes in the French horns do not appear unforced and blend with the framework of strings, if the plangent cello solos do not sound almost unbearably expressive, then one may have a good cast, but not a good Norma.
This evening, I came to the theatre with the expectation of a musically scrumptious performance. This is an orchestra used to Wagner and R. Strauss and, as much as some performances bel canto operas from the Bavarian State Opera, I hoped to find the ultimate level of refinement and polish. However, conductor Paolo Carignani and his musicians did not quite offer that. Maybe because of light-voiced singers, the maestro seemed to focus on the score’s, to use Felice Romani’s own words, molli affetti. In those moments, his good ear for balance and his attention to his singers’ needs payed off touchingly. In the remaining moments, the orchestra basically lacked punch: accents were rather saggy, tempi somehow dragged, intense moments often sounded ultimately noisy. To make things worse, the chorus sang with surprising sluggishness. If the Gaul battle cry was supposed to be so languid, the only reason why Pollione’s army did not wipe them off the surface of the Earth in a couple of hours is because he was too busy fooling around with the local beauties.
However, if someone is to blame for the lack of backbone this evening, this should be Bob Wilson. You don’t really need to read anything I write here to know how it was – it was basically what he does everywhere in whatever he does. He says naturalistic theatre is a fraud, but I guess I would rather be defrauded than bored to death. I still have to be enlightened about how the attempt to recreate human feelings on stage should be less desirable than walking-like-an-Egyptian. All right, some images are beautiful, but some are kitsch too – like having pieces of Norma’s glittery pyramidal “temple” dancing around static actors in the first act’s finale. If there is something to be redeemed in this staging, this would be this evening’s soprano impressive embodiment of this anti-naturalistic approach as a means to increase (and not decrease, as in everything else) drama. Her face had the tragic quality of a mask, her figure the grandeur of a statue and even the slightest movement was filled with the emotional charge that gives sense to everything.
If you are not a soprano drammatico d’agilità, Norma will probably an ungrateful job. It is doubly sad then that practically nobody can claim herself this Fach. Certainly not Elena Mosuc, who would rather be classified as lyric coloratura soprano. Although she has a solid low register, she is no Norma by nature and I suspect we won’t hear her in that role other than in the Opernhaus Zürich. Her voice is extremely appealing in its creaminess and floated pianissimi, but it does resent the slightest attempt of producing a dramatic note. She treated carefully but stylishly through Casta Diva, was not really at ease with Bello, a me ritorna and only survived the second act because she rather adapted the role’s demand to her own means. This made her Norma unusually passive and vulnerable, but if this approach should constitute a valid view of this multifaceted role, she would first need to master the art of blending words and sounds in one single, inseparable unity in the way Giuditta Pasta probably did or a Callas or a Scotto used to do. The Rumanian soprano has clear diction and phrases with elegance, but in the end the results are excessively understated to be called anything else but a laudable attempt.
I have to confess I never expected to find a mezzo soprano like Michelle Breedt in the role of Adalgisa and yet she proved to be adept in the art of messa di voce and to have reasonable coloratura. Hers is still an unitalianate voice, its smoky, a tiny little bit thick sound does not convey any sense of youth and innocence, but this was really an intelligent and capable rendition of a difficult role – and it does not hurt that her top notes are so full and free.
Roberto Aronica is easily the larger voice in the case and probably the only name you would find in a cast list of this opera in normal circumstances. His extreme top notes are not really easy and he sings a bit stodgily, but the sound is always firm, full and echt. Although Giorgio Giuseppini did not seem to be in very good voice (the higher end of his range sounded unfocused), he offered a decent if not quite noble Oroveso with some spacious low notes.