Nov. 21 LA Opera: Norma

Angela Meade (center) in the title role of LA Opera's production of Bellini's "Norma" (photo: Ken Howard)

Angela Meade (center) in the title role of LA Opera’s production of Bellini’s “Norma” (photo: Ken Howard)

LA Opera’s ‘Norma’ delights with superlative vocal efforts, insightful staging

Angela Meade, as the iconic Druid priestess, conquers Los Angeles

By James Sohre
Contributing writer

If you were to take all the sopranos in our collective memory who conquered the Everest role of Norma and pooled all their strengths with none of the weaknesses, the result may come close to Angela Meade’s towering performance at Los Angeles Opera.

Meade conquers the title role’s musical and technical challenges with superb vocalizing, clean diction and dramatic fire.  From the time she opened her mouth, Meade served notice that she had the heroic thrust necessary for Bellini’s potent proclamations, spinning out embellished melodic lines that held listeners at the edge of their seats. Her warm and sizable soprano radiated uncommon beauty, and her phrasing revealed the proper degree of color and weight to evoke a well-rounded character, with arching lines meticulously shaped to Bellini’s exacting specifications.

Meade has surely become the gold standard Norma to which past sopranos will now be compared, and by which all future aspirants will be judged. The deafening ovation she received was proof positive that the anointment was complete: Hers is a Norma for the ages.

Meade was not alone in her triumph. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, as Adalgisa is arguably the most exciting singer to emerge in recent years. Barton’s singing was characterized by its vocal allure, rich tonal production and sound vocal technique. Her round, ripe tone was a beautiful complement to Meade’s more brilliant delivery, and the jaw-dropping displays of virtuosity in the duets between the two made me wonder whether Barton-Meade may be the new go-to pairing for opera connoisseurs.

Russell Thomas (left) as Pollione with Angela Meade as Norma (photo: Ken Howard)

Russell Thomas (left) as Pollione with Angela Meade as Norma (photo: Ken Howard)

Tenor Russell Thomas was a robust and fiery Pollione. I first encountered Thomas at the Canadian Opera Company a few year’s ago and thought he delivered a fine performance, full of promise. That promise is now fulfilled. Thomas’s meaty tenor has a spinto sheen that when added to his interpretative skills places him solidly in the top tier of tenors. In addition to his appealing vocals, Russell was a wholly believable anti-hero.

With his over-sized physical and vocal presence, Morris Robinson crafted a commanding Oroveso. Robinson made the utmost of his time onstage, and his richly orotund bass commanded attention and admiration.

Rafael Moras showed off a clear, bright tenor as Flavius, and his solid idiomatic delivery speaks well for his talent and training in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists Program. Another program member, Lacey Jo Benter, was as an engaging a Clotilde as one could wish for, singing beautifully and delivering her lines with considerable meaning.

Nail Patel’s set design provides an atmospheric playing environment, with handsome side walls framing the stage. To suggest the trees of the forest, Patel adds white poles leaning on the stage right wall, like a pile of pick-up sticks. The moody, blue-tinged backdrop features a few concentric circles with a large dark circle cut in the center of the stage. The platform steps within this configuration may function as an altar, pyre or even a choral riser. When required, it transforms into Norma’s abode with the simple addition of benches.

James Schuette’s evocative costumes aptly define the characters, though Adalgisa and Norma might be better “slimmed” by a more artful approach. (This does happen very effectively once Norma dons a ‘jacket’ over her ornate gown.)  Adalgisa is aptly attired in a youthful gown, but the broad jewel-encrusted waistband does her no favors.

Lighting Designer Duane Schuler, usually a details-oriented artist, appeared to dumb things down in this production to a general, even wash. There were missed opportunities to highlight emotional turning points, and the clumsy red fire effect suggesting the immolation of Norma and Pollione at opera’s end seemed misplaced.

This aside, Director Anne Bogart’s unfussy, clear blocking and meaningful character relationships brought a good deal of insight to the story, perhaps more electricity and interest than Bellini himself had envisioned. I especially enjoyed Bogart’s ritual processions and sense of menace. The addition of virginal, white clad female dancers (nicely choreographed by Barney O’Hanlon) contributed a mystic sense of spiritual discovery.

James Conlon proved to be a wonderful partner in the pit. He drew warm and colorful playing from the orchestra, and coaxed the players to provide an effective cushion of sound while delivering effective interpretive commentary on the vocal lines. Grant Gershon’s chorus delivered the goods, whether singly in soft tones or with full-throated abandon.

With this superlative Norma, Los Angeles Opera has become the envy of many an international opera company aspiring to such unqualified excellence.

James Sohre recently completed a 40-year career with US Army Entertainment, much of it spent in Germany as the Command-level Entertainment Chief. He continues to travel extensively and write about opera and musical events. He is production coordinator for Opera Las Vegas and heads the Young Artists program for which he just directed “A Passion for Puccini,” an evening of staged arias and scenes from all of Puccini’s works.

Details Box:
What: Bellini’s Norma, directed by Anne Bogart
Who: LA Opera
Where: Los Angeles, CA
Performance reviewed: Nov. 21, 2015
Remaining performances: Five performances remaining, through Dec. 13
For tickets:

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