The title role of Bellini’s Norma is one of the most challenging roles in the female repertory. It has been called the most profound portrayal of womanhood in all of opera. It demands a dramatic coloratura soprano with immense vocal power, rare agility, a wide dynamic range, a broad palette of vocal coloration, and instinctive theatricality. Every vocal embellishment, every feat of vocal pyrotechnics must be made to convey dramatic meaning. Bel canto finesse must unite with romantic passion.
Ever since she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007 singing “Casta Diva”, young American soprano Angela Meade has been hyped as a potential successor to Norma’s foremost interpreters. On Saturday night, Meade made her stage debut as the doomed Druidic priestess in a new production at the Washington National Opera. The question in the minds of many was whether the world of opera, ever starved for new genuine talent, had discovered a worthy inheritor of the legacy of Giuditta Pasta and Maria Callas.
Based on the opening night performance, the answer, alas, is no. At least, not yet.
Meade, unquestionably, possesses an impressive vocal instrument. She exhibited a rich timbre, wide dynamic range, genuine spinto power, and tireless vocal stamina. She rode the orchestra with natural ease, delivered some thrilling top notes, showed off a ravishing mezza voce, and floated some lovely pianissimo tones. Her wide vibrato occasionally blurred the fioriture, particularly in Act I, but otherwise she handled the coloratura passages with commendable accuracy, if not the most flexibility. It was an often dazzling, often beautiful vocal exhibition.
And yet, for all of Meade’s technical virtuosity, her vocal and dramatic interpretation was phlegmatic, unimaginative, and uninvolving. She painted with a limited, almost monochromatic vocal palette, failing to capture the mercurial shifts between light and shade. She did not inhabit the extremes of Norma’s emotions, favoring mildness while forsaking madness and ecstasy. Her Norma was matronly and emotionally tepid rather than fearsome, imperious, passionate, and spine-chilling. Only in the finale did Meade display flashes of her character’s formidable theatrical power.
Richard Wagner once famously praised Bellini’s work for being “intimately bound up with the words”. Meade’s performance, in contrast, was fundamentally shaped by the notes rather than the words. Vocal embellishment did not consistently yield dramatic nuance, and Bellini’s lines rarely took full, expressive flight. One can only hope that given all of her obvious vocal gifts, Meade will deepen her interpretation over time. But she is not yet the great singing actress for whom the world has been waiting.
In the crucial supporting role of Adalgisa, veteran mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick outshone the debutante, singing with greater dramatic immediacy and expressive point. Zajick ceded little to Meade in terms of virtuosity, matching messa di voce for messa di voce. Yet Zajick, with her strong theatrical skill and arresting vocal presence, captured far more of her character’s emotional intensity. It is no wonder that Zajick has, on occasion, been asked to sing Norma herself (a request she has steadfastly refused).
Some of the blame for the evening’s emotional tepidness must rest with the production’s director, Anne Bogart. Bogart, a celebrated experimental theatre director, has created a surprisingly literal-minded retelling of the ill-fated love triangle set in Roman-occupied Gaul. The minimalist unit set, designed by Neil Patel, is abstract, with a raked stage standing in for hills and wooden planks for the sacred forest. A circular cut-out represents the sacred Druidic altar and Norma’s house. Yet the costumes, designed by James Schuette, maintain the long robes for the priestesses, stylized forest-dweller garb for the Gauls, and traditional centurion uniforms for the Roman soldiers (only Pollione, inexplicably, sports a black leather trench coat).
Yet aside from the abstract set and some self-consciously ritualistic movements for the chorus, Bogart has staged an essentially literal and static production, with conventional operatic blocking. The mistletoe ceremony, along with almost every other original stage moment, remains resolutely intact. Bogart has neither taken the story in an innovative direction nor imbued the conventional outlines of the narrative with any psychological acuity or theatrical energy.
In the pit, the young conductor Daniele Rustioni enforced brisk efficiency and drew steady, if not especially sculpted or nuanced, playing from the WNO Orchestra. He provided generally sympathetic support for his singers, though he suffered from some co-ordination problems with the chorus and the off-stage banda. Tenor Rafael Davila provided an ineffectual Pollione, suffering from obvious vocal difficulties in his opening cavatina and never delivering on the power the role demands. Dmitry Belosselskiy imbued the role of Oroveso with an imposing stage presence and firm basso power. Soprano Julia Mintzer was a small-scaled if expressive Clotilde, and tenor Mauricio Miranda a weak-voiced Flavio.
A mixed bag of an evening. The world still awaits the next great Norma.