There’s Brünnhilde, Elektra, Violetta and Aida... and then there’s Norma, in its own class. Even putting aside the difficulties of conquering the art of bel canto, with its pure line, trills, fiorature, octave leaps, long breaths and dynamic changes, the role is long and the character is complex: a Druid priestess leading prayer in front of the people she is betraying; a mother hiding and protecting her children but tempted to murder them to spite their unfaithful father; the daughter of an unforgiving man; and a woman scorned, her rage is as vivid as her love, which is as vivid as her forgiveness and, eventually, sacrifice.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

It also doesn’t help that Maria Callas, unique among sopranos in so many ways, sang the role 83 times and left nearly a dozen (private and studio) recordings of it, or that other great Normas within memory are Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland, Leyla Gencer and Renata Scotto. Comparisons are odious but hard to avoid. But now, after making quite a name for herself at the Met in Verdi (Amelia in Ballo, Aida) and more recently, Donizetti’s Three Queens – all arduous roles – Sondra Radvanovsky has brought her Norma to New York in a new production for Opening Night.

<i>Norma</i> at The Met © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Norma at The Met
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Sir David McVicar’s traditional production works well. It is rough-and-ready, with sets by Robert Jones, all of it looking properly ancient, from the stones and bare, almost fossilized trees in Act 1 to Norma’s hut with its roof and walls of interwoven branches, and insistence on a certain gloom – either moonlit or candle-lit  – which was only occasionally too dark. The painted, unkempt Druids surged and lurked menacingly, their warlike choruses a true cry to battle. Norma enters in Act 1, her hair somewhat wild, crawling to the sacred altar, looking as if she’s in a reverie before finding the inspiration to address her people. Adalgisa, her dearest friend and rival for Pollione, the Roman soldier with whom Norma has had two children, joins her on the altar, leaving tellingly as Norma calls for vengeance against Rome. The women’s friendship rings true.

As for Ms Radvanovsky, she cleared many of the hurdles mentioned above. Her outbursts were more effective than her introspective moments, and she fudged the fiorature near the close of her first act cabaletta. But her breath control is remarkable, even at the incredibly slow tempo taken for “Casta diva”, and we were treated to some of the loveliest high pianissimi the house has heard in a while. Her rage was palpable at the close of Act 1. One has heard more moving accounts of “Dormano entrambi”, in which Norma contemplates killing her children, but this may come. In all, her portrayal was a rousing success.

Joseph Calleja (Pollione) and Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Joseph Calleja (Pollione) and Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Joyce DiDonato’s Adalgisa, with a cute and very modern blonde pixie haircut, was thoroughly credible, and one can easily overlook the too-quick vibrato in forte passages for the pathos, virtuosity and sheer sisterhood she shared with Ms Radvanovsky. Their unison singing, in thirds and staccati, was flawless, their timing impeccable. One believed every moment they were together.

Tenor Joseph Calleja started off brilliantly, his bright voice ringing through the house, with utter security in his opening numbers, including the oft-omitted high C. The voice seemed to fade as the first act continued, however, only to return for a blazing “In mia man”, abetted by his Norma’s fury. Bass Mathew Rose convinced as Oroveso, singing his two arias with great beauty and line. Adam Diegel’s Flavio impressed and so did Michelle Bradley’s Clotilde.

Matthew Rose (Oroveso), Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) and Joseph Calleja (Pollione) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Matthew Rose (Oroveso), Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) and Joseph Calleja (Pollione)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Kudos to Carlo Rizzi, who led a detailed, thrilling performance devoid of rum-tum-tum moments. If at times tempi went wildly fast, they invariably matched the dramatic situation, and, of course, he was considerate of the singers. The Met Chorus made the choral moments events in themselves – I’ve rarely enjoyed them as much, and rarely have they seemed so organic. There’s not enough praise for the orchestra.

Later in the season Angela Meade and Jamie Barton take over the leads. More thrills to come.