There’s a moment in Bellini’s Norma that never fails to punch me in the gut. As the opera reaches its final ensemble, the Druid High Priestess Norma, who by now has confessed her crimes to her people and has accepted her fate, turns to her father and tells him that she has borne children with the enemy and begs for their lives. After some vacillation, her father agrees, and Norma says “Ah, tu perdoni, quel pianto il dice! Io piu non chiedo, io son felice!” (You forgive me, your tears have told me. I want nothing more, I am happy). From the pit, Bellini’s orchestra provides a steady pulse that delicately sweeps at the structure, like the tide slowly washing away the majestic sand castle he has spent over two hours building, and over this a melancholy figure rises in the woodwind section as the father forgives his child and acquiesces: It doubles as a gesture of forgiveness and redemption while also signaling the tragic denouement of this extraordinary woman. In the rare instances that I have had the pleasure of experiencing Norma live, this scene has invariably inspired the tears to stream clear past the cheek, and it was no exception last Sunday October 21 when North Carolina Opera mounted a concert performance of the Bellini masterpiece. During the curtain calls, the lady sitting next to me, who had been rather talkative and kept zippering and un-zippering her purse during the entire affair, turned to me and said:
“I saw you crying…it really hit you, didn’t it?”
“You must have liked it a lot”
With an awkward grimace I replied: “You can hum this music and it will make me happy.”
And this is true. Yet further scrutiny reveals complications.
Not to be confused with its more established sister company, Opera Carolina (based in Charlotte,) North Carolina Opera serves the city of Raleigh and the Triangle region. The company was established in 2010 as a merger of two existing companies, and eight seasons in, the young enterprise has already amazed an ambitious repertoire, important premieres and can boast inspired castings. In fact, at the outset of the performance, General Director Eric Mitchko addressed the audience to inform that this was the first performance of a Bellini opera in Raleigh, and for that fact alone North Carolina Opera should be applauded. The performance took place in the 1,700 seat Meymandi concert hall which has a somewhat narrow shape and allow for an up close acoustic that is at best vivid and at worst boxy. As the performance got under way, the baton of maestro Antony Walker inspired the first instances of concern. We’re familiar with the maestro’s work from our many pilgrimages to Washington Concert Opera. He is a creative, inspired musician who believes in this repertoire and understands the style. But what took place on Sunday afternoon was a matter of too many ideas failing to congeal in a way befitting the score. Perhaps as a way of favoring the vocalists, the tempi were given little chance to settle within many scenes, at times becoming erratic. This affected his reading of the opera’s overture, which he attempted to give a majestic treatment, and the more complicated ensembles, such as the big ensembles that bring the curtain of each of the opera’s two acts. These irregularities more than occasionally revealed the shortcomings of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra, which tried its best to keep up. A more troubling matter were the non-standard cuts made to the score, most noticeably the orchestral interlude that introduces Oroveso’s opening number, as well as the reinvention of the closing pages of Norma’s famous aria di sortita. If the maestro had a reason for these, none were offered in the program. For their part, the North Carolina Opera Chorus sang well under the direction of Chorus Master Scott MacLeod. The chorus members are talented, young and attractive, and for that very reason should remember that all eyes are on them, and must beware of appearing disinterested (ie: yawning) during the long stretches that do not require their involvement.
Years ago, during a discussion on Norma with an artist I will not name, she remarked that the role was bound to give any of the various voice types issues, but that: “This is just opera, we’re not saving lives.” I greatly respect this lady, but I had immediate misgivings over this statement and tried for years to view it in whatever light I needed to in order to accept it. To this day, I have failed, because it is basically not true. Norma may not be doing CPR onstage, but Bellini can most certainly save lives (hand raised) and a great artist can most definitely create it. There is real life to be found in Romani’s text, in Bellini’s score, and in the way these were blended to accommodate the other genius responsible for the birth of this opera: the great Giuditta Pasta. Norma is indeed as much Pasta’s creation as it is Bellini’s and Romani’s. The opera was tailored to her proclivities, which were vocally disparate, musically controversial and artistically encyclopedic. For years following its premiere, Norma was considered a sacred role, to be handed over only to the greatest prima donnas who approached it with due trepidation. Following Pasta, the role was essayed by the mercurial Maria Malibran, and latter became the property of Giulia Grisi, who herself created the role of Adalgisa. Pauline Viardot, the most celebrated artist and intellectual of her generation, did not make a success of it, and Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, dared to go near it and earned the few blemishes in her otherwise pristine career. In the 20th century Arturo Toscanini refused to conduct the opera without an exponent worthy of the part, and only one, Inez de Frate, made a compelling case but was ultimately bypassed. The great Wagnerian Lilli Lehmann famously proclaimed that one Norma was more difficult than the three Brunhildes combined, and along with her, the only artists to join the pantheon were Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and the recently departed Montserrat Caballe. Suffice it to say, Norma is not a just another gig, and singers vying for the role must come ready to put the whole of their art at her service. Last Sunday, it was soprano Leah Crocetto’s turn to step up to the plate, and the results did not satisfy.
The young artist is gifted with a gleaming, steady, bright lirico spinto soprano graced by a sweet, pouty tone. At its best, it can be unleashed into a torrent of sound and can climb up the scale impressively. These are lovely qualities, but as the performance would underline, not enough to bring Norma to life. Norma’s famous entrance tested her resources right away, and the declamatory passages in the famous “Sediziose voci” revealed a singer unable to wield her instrument effectively. Her otherwise youthful sound took on a ragged, shrill quality, which she was only able to shed away during the long phrases of her famous cavatina “Casta Diva,” where the voice seemed to find its footing and proper support. Though the aria was not heard in its best light (sketchy flourishes and simplified ornamentation kept her efforts to the perfunctory) it raised promises for the rest of the evening. These turned into further questions during the cabaletta “Ah bello a me ritorna”, which found Ms. Crocetto unable to pace the whole of the voice through the required passagework, having instead to thin down her resources to give ornate music its due rapidity, resulting in serious detriment to the character’s gravitas. She also has a bizarre tendency of preparing trills and not actually executing them. It is not advisable to judge a Norma by the strength of her first scene, for even Giuditta Pasta reportedly took some time to warm up, but in Ms. Crocetto’s case she essentially set the trend for the rest of the afternoon. Segments of her lyric singing, where the voice was allowed to expand in its wide lyric glory, were indeed impressive, and it was best heard during the two duets with Adalgisa. That her Norma could no excel past this point because the basics of her voice would not allow it soon became painfully evident: her instrument does not have the Grand Dame quality necessary to portray the part. Singers of the past with similar issues managed to compensate by way of extraordinary and careful musicianship as well as inspired artistry; and these are qualities that Ms. Crocetto is hopefully on her way to attaining but as of now does not possess. So the dry quality of her declamation, as well as the unheroic delivery of key bravura sequences such as “Ah non tremare” or “Vanne si, mi lascia indegno”, all tests of a true Norma, were offered at blunt face value seemingly with little artful intent. A final nail in the coffin was delivered during the final stretch of the opera, where the diva must dominate the stage for the final half hour of the opera in a spectacular display of vocal fortitude, virtuosity, and dramatic fervor. Ms. Crocetto exhibited little of these and actually managed to miss several musical cues to near disaster, all with the score open in front of her. Wishing to remain courteous, I quietly left during her obligatory standing ovations.
When heard at his best, Chad Shelton, portraying the role of Norma’s ungrateful lover Pollione, revealed a big and well-focused heroic tenor fit to express the role’s alpha male qualities. However, whether by fault of breath support, technical deficiency or lack of vocal endowment, his vocalism was rendered irregular for the entirety of the presentation. This was a real shame, because right from his entrance “Svanir le voci”, Mr. Shelton’s intent to express was palpable, but seemed to consistently run out of fuel to complete his phrasings. This affected his opening aria “Meco all’ altar di Venere” in the most obvious way, and a misjudgement of his pacing resulted in our hero ungainly ducking out of the arias climaxes. Not to be outdone by these pesky details, Mr. Shelton constantly resorted to vocal grand guignol to make his points, and while this can certainly qualify as cheating,his very intent set him apart from the removed manner of his leading lady (i.e.: what he has, she needs). For instance, the aria has a fascinating sequence where Pollione tells his inferior, Flavio, of a dream where he heard “una voce orribile” in the temple of Venus declaring Norma’s vengeance. In our experience, no tenor has taken the care to change their vocal quality to depict this spectral voice, but Mr. Shelton’s snarls and grunts illustrated it as best as he could. Another example, following the great duet “In mia man” that hallmarks his singing in the second act, he nearly whispered “Oh ancor ti prego…Norma, pieta!” to refreshing effect. In fact, it was during that previous duet, which at its best can be a poker game for both principals, that Mr. Shelton consistently attempted to initiate a vocal and histrionic chemistry with his partner and it was a true shame that she remained unresponsive. Mr. Shelton is a tall, handsome artist who has a lot of offer. We hope to hear him in better light in the future.
The Oroveso of bass Ao Li provided a case for less compromise. His is a firm lyric bass, with an appropriate walnut core and brilliant sheen. In charge of opening the proceedings, Mr. Li managed the broad tessitura of the difficult “Ite sul colle” with admirable aplomb. It was, however, during his more central Act Two scena “Ah del Tebro, al giogo indegno” where his instrument was allowed to mellow in its most authoritative splendor. He, along with the Adalgisa of mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, provided the most distinguished vocal offerings of the afternoon, and in Ms. DeShong’s case, her handling of Adalgisa’s difficult and often thankless music earned her the afternoon’s top honors. From the start, there is the voice, a bronzed-hued, smoldering mezzo-soprano, steady in emission and seamlessly connected from the contralto vaults up to the soprano high C which the singer unleashed with tasteful generosity whenever the baton cued her. She delivered the broad phrases of her opening aria “Deh proteggemi, o Dio” with due conviction, and when confronted with the vocally rambunctious Pollione of Ms. Shelton, she remained both engaged and classically expressive. For the two celebrated duets that followed, she matched Ms. Crocetto’s lyric line yet provided the darkness of tone that her counterpart needed, and while it may be true that their voices did not ideally blended in thirds, the fabled third voice that their voices created gave a quick glimpse of what the true voice for the title role ought to sound like. The comprimario parts were well filled, and featured the talents of tenor Wade Henderson as a sturdy Flavio. The role of Norma’s confidante Clotilde has had a curious history as a good luck charm for aspiring singers, and in spite of an overly muffled production, the small part was gracious to the efforts of mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty.
Following Bellini’s Norma, North Carolina Opera will offer staged performances of Bizet’s Carmen and Puccini’s Tosca in 2019. For more information, please see the company’s website at www.ncopera.org