Bel canto splendor in Lyric Opera’s Norma

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
February 13, 2017

Bellini: Norma

Sondra Radvanovsky, Norma
Elizabeth DeShong, Adalgisa
Russell Thomas, Pollione
Andrea Silvestrelli, Oroveso
Jesse Donner, Flavio
Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, Clotilde

Riccardo Frizza, conductor
Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra
Kevin Newbury, director
David Korins, set designer

Easily the non plus ultra of the bel canto repertoire, Bellini’s Norma affords one the opportunity to relish in the beauty of the human voice, chiefly supplied by Sondra Radvanovsky as the title role in Lyric Opera’s current production.  Bellini characterized the work as a tragedia liricia, aptly capturing its essential dichotomy of sumptuous singing within a starkly dark context, perhaps suggesting the similar duality inherent in the dramma giocoso label Mozart appended to Don Giovanni.  This new-to-Chicago production was designed by David Korins, and took inspiration from supposed motifs of the Iron Age.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), Andrea Silvestrelli (Oroveso), photo credit Cory Weaver

Even before the curtain rose, one could feel the impending sense of strife in the dramatic overture, the orchestra in dependably fine form under the baton of Riccardo Frizza in his Lyirc debut.  Radvanovsky was radiant in her first appearance, delivering the justly famous, plaintive “Casta diva” atop an elevated platform.  Augmented to ethereal effect by a solo flute, she embodied the aria’s lyrical decadence.  I did find her voice to be unfortunately grainy in some of the longer sustained notes, but overall she negotiated the daunting demands of the role admirably well.

Another early highlight came in the duet between her and Adalgisa (“Sola, furtiva al tempio”), the latter convincingly sung by Elizabeth DeShong.  The two leading women showed their vulnerability in this touchingly affecting moment.  In due course matters burgeoned into a trio with the addition of Pollione, a vehicle for Russell Thomas’ company debut.  Thomas didn’t quite manage to fully deliver the weight of the role, but he was at his best during the heartwrenching duet with Norma “In mia man alfin tu sei” near the opera’s end.  Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi exuded an appropriately matronly demeanor in her portrayal of Clotilde, watching over Norma’s soon-to-be motherless children.  The choir had many fine moments to shine throughout the evening; prepared by Michael Black they were especially rousing in the Act II call to arms, “Guerra, guerra”.

Russell Thomas (Pollione) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), photo credit Alyssa Pointer

While the opera is takes place in Roman-occupied Gaul during the year 50 BCE, Korins’ set looked back much further in time in its invocation of the Iron Age, which seemingly could have doubled as set from Games of Thrones.  To its credit, it skirted excessive kitchiness, yet this revisionist take still seemed questionable at best.  The oak tree was of sacred significance to the Druids, and one hung suspended as a beguiling central image, perhaps suggesting the way Norma was suspended in indecision between religion and love.  In the opera’s tragic ending, Norma throws herself into a flaming pyre, but in a perplexing anticlimax, no flames were to be had, diminishing the effect.  Indeed, there’s likely more drama to be found in Jim Morrison singing “and our love become a funeral pyre”; there at least fires are lit, unlike the disappointing end to a by and large anodyne production from Lyric.

Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa), Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), and Russell Thomas (Pollione), photo credit Cory Weaver