When the Met estimated the timing for Norma, Bellini’s familiar bel canto opera included in their fall repertory this year, they did not factor in the ongoing applause for soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Ms Radvanovsky was showered with clapping and cheering as soon as she had sung the final note of “Casta Diva”, as well as at the end of the evening, and by the time I left my seat, it was much later than the projected end time of 11:05pm. Ms Radvanovsky’s impeccably-sung Norma had carried the evening, so that mumbles and rumbles of awe could be heard all around, taking up where the applause had left off. Despite the late hour, everyone seemed exhilarated.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma, © Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera 2013
Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma,
© Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera 2013

Throughout the tensely-anticipated Act I aria “Casta Diva”, Ms Radvanovsky’s voice had glowed and shone like the night sky, an ever-present motif in the opera. In her shimmery gown, surrounded by druids and priestesses, she implored the moon goddess to bestow peace to their people. The earth tones and pianissimo murmurs of the chorus only served to emphasize the dignity in Ms Radvanovsky’s demeanor and widely-varied dynamics. Her voice rippled and pulsed with light, evoking the moon that was here represented by a simple orb suspended against the backdrop. And like the moon, her voice was round and full and enduring. Ms Radvanovsky was convincing not only as the determined high priestess but also as the betrayed wife, the protective mother, the empathetic friend. The fact that the opera was composed in 1831 – and takes place in 50 B.C.E. – was irrelevant: the emotions were persistently present. The anguish filled up the vast opera house as deftly as Ms Radvanovsky’s voice did.

The other voices, while almost drab against that of Ms Radvanovsky, were not forgettable. Mezzo Kate Aldrich brought grit and poise to the role of Adalgisa. Her distress provided a successful contrast to Norma’s radiance throughout, but particularly during their Act II duet, “Mira, o Norma”. Aleksandrs Antonenko was convincing as Pollione, Norma’s dishonest husband, though not quite as nuanced in his despair. And James Morris offered strong and striking vocals as Norma’s father, the head of the druids. The orchestra likewise contributed their own crisp voice to the narrative, bouncing and charging along under the precise conducting of Riccardo Frizza. All of these voices brought a color and tension to the performance that were lacking elsewhere.

Indeed, without the all-around brilliant singing, John Copley’s production might have been a bit of a snooze. The somewhat crepuscular theme of the story was emphasized with bleak, minimal sets and dark-toned costumes, both by John Conklin. During Act I, ominous jagged rocks were arranged haphazardly against a solid turquoise backdrop: fitting, but uninteresting. Act II was more of the same. Norma’s red dress was the only contrast in a sea of midnight blue, and Ms Radvanovsky’s luminous smile was the the only contrast to a sea of spears and grimaces. Luckily, the energy and effervescence of the singing kept the story in motion: from the forest gathering where Norma prays for peace, to Norma’s dwelling where her two sons romp innocently, to the Temple of Irminsul, in which Norma and Pollione meet their tragic end. The pedestrian production could not shroud the enormity of the emotions expressed and exchanged. However beautiful or ugly the music or sets might be, Norma is, above all, a tragedy.

Many productions at the Met have carried their own distinct theatrical significance, worth seeing even if only for spectacle or controversy. This production of Norma, then, might be unusual in the lackluster quality of its visuals. It might not be a “must-see” in the literal sense – but it deserves to be heard above all.