A gigantic wooden bull and a hovering tree branch preside over the Lyric Opera’s new-to-Chicago production of Bellini’s Norma, which director Kevin Newbury premiered in San Francisco in 2014. The set, a dark and angular hunting lodge, seems all the more immovable by its failure to change much over the evening’s three-and-change hours, instead relying on adjustments in lighting and the odd rearrangement of furniture to provide visual relief. If the set’s purpose was to evoke the foreboding and viscerally immediate world of the Iron Age, it struggles to establish historical distance, in part because the singers’ movements are so quintessentially nineteenth century: their emotional vigor and naturalistic intensity mitigate the period set’s distanciation effects.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), Andrea Silvestrelli (Oroveso) © Cory Weaver
Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), Andrea Silvestrelli (Oroveso)
© Cory Weaver

The fairly innocuous set thus clears the path for a focus on Sondra Radvanovsky as the bel canto heroine Norma. There’s a lot to admire about the American soprano’s inhabitation of the role. One of her most potent weapons is her pianissimo, which she relishes in deploying, time and again finding the perfect vibrational sweet spot that makes her hover over the orchestra. She will let a line fade out nearly to extinction, then suddenly bring it back to life in an explosion of color and warmth that must have borrowed breath from somewhere else. She treats Bellini’s meandering lines like taffy, stretching them out at will and letting various amounts of light through the treacle. While the “Casta Diva”, for my taste, was a little too controlled and neat in its placement of notes, you couldn’t say that Radvanovsky shied away from risks over the course of the night. She repeatedly confronted the edge of what she could do, breaking audibly in the upper register more than once, but refusing to scale back her intensity even in the fiendish finale.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) © Cory Weaver
Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma)
© Cory Weaver

Even more impressive, though in a slighter role, was Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa. DeShong prowls the stage like a predator, and her amazingly husky contralto register simply has to be heard. Her duets with Radvanovsky were the vocal highlights of the night: the two seem to sing from one lung, the articulation and phrasing consistently in tune and glued tight.

The male roles, on the whole, were sung with more forthright intensity and less musical nuance than the lead priestesses. Leading the charge was Russell Thomas, who imagines the Roman proconsul Pollione in a constant state of agitation. His tenor is strident and cutting, pushing an edge that never really softens. I appreciated the intensity of his stage presence in relation to Radvanovsky’s Norma, whose physical conservativeness sometimes too closely aligned with the set’s immobility.

The best acting, though, came from the Lyric’s chorus, whose overall commitment to melodramatic gesture could serve as a masterclass for many of the leads who walk on the same stage. As usual, the Michael Black-directed group sang with precision and verve, especially when they come to the front of the stage in Act 2. The Lyric’s orchestra performed well under Riccardo Frizza, with the strings standing out in particular for ensemble and lyricism.

Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa), Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), Russell Thomas (Pollione) © Cory Weaver
Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa), Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma), Russell Thomas (Pollione)
© Cory Weaver

In the end, though, Newbury’s production leaves you with more questions than it answers. When Norma swoops her torch down to the wooden platform upon which she (according to the story) is supposed to immolate herself and Pollione, why does nothing happen? (Not even a little fire?) Was this a first-night pyrotechnic glitch, or a move into abstraction? But if the lighting was a symbolic one, why spend so much money on a massive, finely-detailed bull that’s teased at the end of Act 1 and only takes the stage for maybe fifteen seconds? As the curtain fell, I was too caught up in thought to feel what I think I was supposed to feel from the opera’s final tableau. For an opera like Norma, failing to capitalize on the audience’s immersion is surely to squander the most precious directorial resource.