Tulsa Opera’s first production of Norma premiered on Saturday, April 30th, and continued for two more presentations on Friday May 6th and Sunday May 8th. Having attended the last two performances of the run, I can say that the company can pride itself in having assembled one of the most satisfying Norma casts that I have heard in the past fifteen years.
The new production was directed and designed by Stanley M. Garner, who strived to focus on the drama of the piece by removing, as he viewed it, distracting historical inaccuracies found in the libretto. References to settings were edited out of the super title projections, the staging did not evoke Gaul or the thick Druid forest (though some references to Stonehenge did not escape me) and the costume design further discouraged any attempt to link the action to any specific time or locale. Ironically, I found these choices, particularly those in costume, to distract from the dramatic values presented in the work. The Druid chorus was dressed in garments resembling hospital scrubs, and the pattern gracing the overcoat worn by Norma (placed over the scrubs and matching pants ensemble) was likely inspired by the print found in paper towels. We don’t go to the opera to see high fashion, but rarely have I seen something designed to be so purposely unflattering. The disparate nature of the other costumes also managed to distort my face in several occasions, and as I left my seat during the first intermission, I heard a lady say to her companion “So the husband’s Musolini and his little friend is Columbus?” I veritably ran out of the auditorium. Visuals aside, the evening’s musical journey was elegantly paced by Kostis Protopapas, a young maestro who successfully balanced the sparse bel canto language of Bellini’s orchestra and realized the theatricality of the score, all the while allowing the singers to fulfill their duties under the support of his empathetic tempo. His achievement was made the greater when considering some of the significant abbreviations made in the score, of note the shift to the G major section in the overture, robbing the ear of the beautiful pianissimo trills required of the violins, as well as entire orchestral introduction to Adalgisa’s act one entrance. Norma is not a happy work, and these cuts undeniable robbed the evening of some indispensable moments of sweetness. However, much remained, and Protopapas’ superlative cast (particularly the Norma of soprano Brenda Harris) brought forth the bittersweet human qualities that make this score the apex of Bellini’s musical legacy.
In an essay entitled “Pasticcio”, the mercurial Richard Wagner (a surprisingly ardent Bellinian) described the prerequisite qualities that a singer must possess in order to successfully portray a Bellini role “…a really beautiful and technically correct trill…a perfect mordent…rounded coloratura…genuine, unaffected, soul-stirring portamento….complete equalization of the registers…steady intonation through all the varying shades of crescendo and dimuendo…” If this is true, I have a feeling that Herr Wagner would have approved of Brenda Harris’ interpretation of Norma, for in her we have an exponent capable of fulfilling the exhaustive requirements of the role; all the while achieving a vivid and heart-felt musical impersonation of Bellini’s eponymous heroine which those present in the audience will not soon forget. Hers is a soprano of a distinguished, burnished timbre, evenly equalized in all its registers. It can swell to dramatic soprano proportions and at once flawlessly reduce to a breath-taking fil di voce. Her opening scene, beginning with the dramatic recitative “Sediziose voci”, found her in authoritative form. Towards the end of the recitative, she sang the phrase “io mieto” on a high A flat by means of a messa di voce which swelled throughout the auditorium and reduced to sheer nothingness, literally robbing the audience of its breath. This gave way to a beautifully floated, rapt take on her famous aria “Casta Diva”. Following the applause that greeted her efforts, she embarked full voice into her wishful cabaletta “Ah bello a me ritorna”, where the flights of coloratura were powerfully realized by use of a flexible, yet heroic declamation. As she exited the stage, the audience could rest assured that a singer worthy of this sacred part was present within their mists.
When the second scene opened, the tense exchange between Norma and her servant Clotilde gave evidence that a true artist laid within the master technician: We heard a sensitive woman suffering under the pressures of her plight. The tone was pensive in the phrase “Amo in un punto ed odio I figli miei” (“I love and yet I hate my children”) as if she were reassessing the chilling situation all over again as she spoke it, and it turned desperate and full of knowing dread as she considered being abandoned by Pollione. That she managed to vocally display these emotions while still singing within the boundaries on her equalized instrument (even the chest was not forced at any point, yet remained within the same fabric throughout) was nothing short of extraordinary. With Adalgisa’s entrance, the women joined in their first duet (“Ah rimmembranza”). Ms. Harris made use of the most lyric colors in her arsenal to recall her once happy love, and capped the final phrases of the duet with an exemplary, well schooled trill. As Pollione’s duplicity is revealed, Ms. Harris’ manner reminded me of the words J.B. Steane used to describe the artistry of that great tenor, Giovanni Martinelli “He drew the sound with the thin definition of a pencil line, but glowing brightly as if the pencil were pointed with fire.” Her heroic emissions remained focused like a laser beam, negotiated the merciless florid challenges demanded by Bellini in magisterial fashion and culminated in two stentorian high C’s. The one observation here is that Ms. Harris did not opt to take on the optional high D to bring the curtain down, but after such scorching music making, it hardly mattered. As the terrors of the second act began, one felt compelled to wonder if the incessant qualities that comprised the first act would be able to last through the second. These fears proved unfounded. Ms. Harris appeared in a trance as she debated whether her hand should strike her children dead. As she resolved to proceed, her gait and manner made one fear for the young actors onstage (and I don’t even like children…). My comments on her act two duet with Adalgisa can be read in the section concerning Ms. Kulczak’s assessment (something cool happened there), so I will move forward to the moment when the opera turns marathon for the soprano, starting with the wistful moment of hope “Ei tornera”. If anything, this would be a place where a singer should “save voice”, yet there was nothing of the sort to be found in Ms. Harris’s delivery of this section. In a gesture that squarely places her in direct company with the great Normas of the last century, she ascended from middle C to a spellbinding pianissimo high C in the phrase “Come del primo amor”, in one giant breath for the approximate length of twenty-one seconds. It is no wonder the Druids followed her command. When the final confrontation with Pollione arrived, she became a more beguiling creature. She took Pollione aside and the voice argued the logical points. It reacted shocked by his dismissal (her shoulder moved noticeably back, as if his words had physically injured her). It was then that she shed the veneer of the powerful priestess and the destroyed woman laid before her former lover. She admitted to his horror that she had raised the dagger before the heads of the children: “Vedi vedi a che son giunta!…Un istante..e d’esser madre mi poss’io dimenticar” (“See, see what I have become!…In an instant I could forget I am a mother“). Throughout the auditorium, an audible gasp could be heard from women who had just received their mothers’ day flowers. The final concerted numbers which close the opera were delivered with poignant resolve, a woman finally released from her public tortures. She begged her father to take her children, and just in case we thought she was done, she sang a true fil di voce deliciously held on a high B with the words “Ah, padre! Un prego ancor!” (Ah, father! One last request”). She closed the opera with a stentorian high G which eclipsed the chorus and orchestra, and devastated the audience. My birth year prevented me from experiencing the great Normas of the last century: Lehmann, Ponselle, Raisa, Cigna, Callas, Caballe, Sutherland, just to name a few, but I count myself lucky that I saw Harris. At this time, she may very well be the one exponent able to represent such greatness in the new century.
Making her Tulsa debut, mezzo soprano Edyta Kulczak distinguished herself as Adalgisa primarily through the beauty of her voice. That said, it is a curious mezzo soprano instrument, luminous in the upper notes and capable of immense sonority when these are pressed to fortissimo. The lower reaches of this voice are, however, surprisingly hollow and seemingly incapable of achieving the same luminous quality found at the top. Her opening aria, “Deh, proteggemi, o Dio” exhibited the exuberance of the instrument, but also laid bare these disparate qualities. The final outburst that concludes the aria “Ah, perduta io son” set a trend that characterized her work through the entire evening. The climax takes place in a high G flat, which Mrs. Kulczak swelled to Straussian proportions, but the descent to the final low D flat was markedly undernourished. Stylistically, this creates a problem when the singer is required to lay the instrument in the service of Bellini’s long melodic lines, for they must be made from the same cloth. Alas, in many instances, I found Ms. Kulczak’s voice going beyond the sleeve of sound during loud outbursts, and had the voice been less beautiful it may have proven obtrusive. Good thing for everyone involved that it was a lovely thing to behold. As the aria gave way to her duet with Pollione, marked differences in style were noted as Ms. Kulczak’s phrasing did not share the Italianate manner of Mr Porretta. This was a more Mozartian approach to Bellini, certainly not the ideal though still quite valid. Adalgisa’s third big test takes place when she joins Norma for their first duet “Ah, rimmembranza.” Here, the irregularity of registers proved to be a barrier to Ms. Kulczak as she shaped the melodic line. Her legato was also affected by the use of a light aspirate that allowed her to navigate through the intricate ornamentation, and she made a futile attempt at reaching the high C in the second section of the duet. Yet still, she managed to make a winning impression, and in the final duet with Norma in the second act, “Mira, o Norma”, there is an exceptional page where both singers must join voices in thirds and ascend the staff unaccompanied. Magically, though both voices had very different timbres, they mixed into the fabled “third voice”, and for a period of about forty five seconds we may have been treated to a sound not heard since the days of Kirsten Flagstad.
In his impersonation of the Roman proconsul Pollione, tenor Frank Porretta unleashed a well-balanced tenor capable of shaping Pollione’s awkward first act aria “Ecco all altar di venere” in a stylish manner. The voice’s baritonal qualities recalled some of the old school Italian tenors of the 60s, though the voice never quite took on those spectacular dimensions. Still, he never reverted to pushing his instrument beyond its natural limitations, and made his case before the public in terms of sound and phrasing. The results were twofold. When this dark sound ascended the scale to the high G’s and C’s of his solo offering, the public became aware of the great feat he had achieved, and rewarded him with gusto. He was also attentive to the dramatic possibilities of the music, so when he retold Norma’s curse heard in a frightening dream (“Norma cosi fa scempio d’amante traditor!/This is Norma’s vengeance upon her faithless lover!”), he reacted to the threatening orchestral figure which lines this passage and implies that Pollione is seriously affected by this warning. As a result, the voice quivered as he uttered the words again. For years, I have seen a string of Polliones just skate past this section unaffected, and it was a delight to behold an artist react to such musical detail. On the other side of the coin, the diminished projection forced him to relented to Ms. Kulczak’s sonorous efforts during their duet in act one, but musical phrasing can take a singer very far, and when he faced Ms. Harris in the last duet of the opera, both artists engaged in some serious music making.
After Norma utters her final offer to save his life, the tenor sang the phrase “No; si vil non sono” (No: I am not a coward) realized with such implied and stubborn contempt that it forced Ms. Harris to step back in utter shock, and as the rising trills gave way to her ultimate warning, Mr. Porretta sank back to his vocal knees, begging that Adalgisa be spared. In all of these instances, the tenor emitted a timbre that has been missing from the lyric stage for quite some time, and in phrasing, he reminded the audience of an art not heard since the days of Flaviano Labo and even Franco Corelli.
Suffering from a bout of allergies, bass Harold Wilson asked for the understanding of the audience during the performance on Friday May 6th. His Oroveso was heard in better form on the matinee performance of Sunday May 8th, and so that is the presentation we will focus on in reviewing his performance. In dramatic and musical terms, Oroveso represents the heart of the Druid people, and though he has some important exchanges with Norma, the role is basically comprised of two big scenes with the chorus of Druids. The first is the massive, slow-paced opening number “Ite sull colle, o Druidi” (To the hills, o Druids) which rolls poignantly like the mighty ocean. It requires a voice of dark splendor to match this, and it cannot be said that Mr. Wilson was completely up for the task. A shaky intonation in the mid-low range and a general covered quality hampered the effect of his opening phrases, though he quickly built upon these efforts as the many bars of this statuesque scene rolled by. Still, the scene requires a cathedral sound, and this was indicated rather than realized. When the andante grave marking gave way to an andante mosso, the pulse quickened and led the bass to a significant sequence of florid music: “Dell’aura tua profetica, terribil Dio l’informa” (Inspire her, o terrible God, with Thy prophetic spirit). These he achieved with respectable skill, though it cannot be said that they were performed with a great degree of panache. The second scene “Ah del Tebro al giogo indegno” (Ah, I too chafe beneath the Roman yoke) does not require the same declamatory style, and the more lyric line allowed the bass to emit a richer, uninterrupted shimmer of voice, which, set against the backdrop of the chorus, projected his talents in better light.
The evening’s comprimario parts were entrusted to two artists making their company debuts in Tulsa. In the brief role of Flavio, tenor Steven Sanders was better heard on the evening of Friday May 6th than on Sunday the 8th’s matinee performance (where he unfortunately lost cohesion with the maestro). The role is limited to a brief exchange with Pollione during the antihero’s first scene, and Mr. Sanders’ clear diction complimented well with Mr. Porretta’s efforts during this scene. In the role of Norma’s maid, Clotilde, soprano Alexandra LoBianco brought a sturdy yet somewhat matronly tone to her exchanges with Norma, and her diction was generally cloudy. A quick examination of her repertoire, however, begs for future assessment, since roles such as Wagner’s Sieglinde, Verdi’s Leonora in Il Trovatore and Puccini’s Turandot have found their way in her resume. May the stars guide her every step.
Though Tulsa Opera’s 2010-2011 season ended with these presentations of Bellini’s Norma, the new season begins this October with Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The 2011-2012 season also includes productions of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. For more information on the Tulsa Opera Company and their 2011-2012 season, please visit their website at www.tulsaopera.com.