13 November 2007

Mira the Norma

Bellini NORMA, Met 12.XI.2007; c. Benini; Papian, Zajick, Farina, Kowalkow.

Two requirements of the role of Norma that very few singers, past and present, could clear: (a) extreme range of vocal ability-- from halcyon lyricism in scale phrases, to unblemished florid coloratura for killer cabalettas, to theatrical declamatory outbursts in recitatives; and (b) superhuman stamina to do the first requirement ALL F*CKING EVENING. And we're not even getting to the inordinate emotional and dramatic demands on the soprano to make it all work on stage. Line up live renditions (no stitched up studio recordings please) of Norma's entrance cavatina--from the "Sediziose voci" to the "Casta Diva" pasta commercial to the deceptively simple cabaletta "Ah! bello a me ritorno"--to see that very few excel evenly through the three sonic faces of Norma. Then, doing this all evening long would surely defeat whoever's left standing. Thus it's a major miracle to have the likes of Callas and Caballe audaciously make this role a career calling card. In such a playing field, one can take two viewpoints: (1) think everyone's a failure, and critique to shreds anyone stupid enough to attempt the role; or (2) think everyone's a failure, forgive wistfully and move on. Hasmik Papian presents a joyous challenge to these two viewpoints. She delivers a more than credible Norma that one is apt to analyze her performance to the molecular level to find the misplaced hydrogen bond; while on the other hand, a more than creditable Norma is a cause for bliss, and to hell with the misplaced hydrogen bond.

If she were to come to my apartment and sing this role in my bathroom, she'd have sung this role everywhere. Well, not exactly, but I suspect that by the end of her career she'd have sung it wherever there's a room full of people. And she ought to. Foremost, she has extraterrestrial stamina. She regaled us with "Ah padre! un prego ancor", Norma's last hurdle, as she had begun the evening-- with freshness and nuance, gamely taking long and leaping phrases in single breaths. Throughout the marathon she was fearless in the florid passages, steady and calm in the pianissimi, and vicious in the explosive moments like "Guerra, strage, sterminio!", which surely roused the morale of her troops, not to mention some of my bodily organs. I don't remember much of the Aida she did for her debut at the Met a few years ago, except that I thought hers was a smallish voice of unimaginative qualities. The transformation can't be any starker-- in this Norma she exhibits total involvement, above par control, and "measured abandon", of an interesting voice that has substantial cut and ping. Surrounding her is an embarrassing production, possibly the cheapest production the Met has ever staged (sadder if it isn't), but which does one thing well: the polished raked stage is absolutely sound reflective, propelling any voice out to all corners of the auditorium. So Papian was helped by the stage physics, but I imagine she has also continued to build more power into her voice, while still retaining the beauty and brilliance of her top notes, in piano as well as in forte.

Papian's range is stunning indeed. To stand beside a singing Dolora Zajick and still be noticed is worthy of highest praise. Papian matched Zajick's stealthy vocal weapons with sure poise: messa di voce for messa di voce, high C diminuendo for high C diminuendo, luxuriant tone for luxuriant tone. While some of the rapidfire coloratura was smudged slightly (quibbling!), there was hardly a missed note, this while still addressing every crevice of the fantastic emotional dimensions of the role. I also like the slightly distressed quality that settles into her voice at times, to me suggesting her character's humanity and, paradoxically, femininity.

Zajick is formidable in any role, but especially as Adalgisa. With her boundless talents, her sopranic top, her bel canto bel canto, her authentic piano singing, she ought to try the Norma too. Seriously. Zajick as Norma, and Stephanie Blythe as Adalgisa-- wouldn't that totally blow your mind's nut. Meanwhile, Franco Farina is experiencing some sort of a minor renaissance. He improved vastly in the Aidas just concluded, and now, as Pollione, he is determined to not be the ugliest voice on stage. The wobble notwithstanding, his voice was sufficiently pliant, delivering some surprising pianos and sensitive phrases, while still remaining male. Vitalij Kowalkow, the Oroveso, continues to impress New York with his rich dark chocolate bass. James Levine, who led a Wagnerian Lucia early this season, should take lessons with Maestro Maurizio Benini in delivering a no-frills bel canto opera with still a lot of excitement and verve.