Florida Grand Opera’s current production of Norma, Vincenzo Bellini’s beloved bel canto singfest from 1831, has a little something extra for its patrons: An added aria by Richard Wagner.
But it already has the basic thing it needs, and that’s thrilling singing.
Working off a strong directorial vision from Nic Muni, FGO’s Norma features standout vocal work from its four chief singers, all of whom bring plenty of stamina to their individual roles in one of the most demanding operas of this genre.
In the lead role was the Russian soprano Mlada Khudoley, who has been singing big roles such as Aida and Turandot in the last year or so. She made an excellent Norma, with a voice that was as commanding as the character, full of power, breadth and beauty, along with an accurate, focused top that allowed her to hit the highest notes in the role without strain or shrillness. Her technique was precise and fluid, as you could hear when she rattled off a run down to the bottom of her register, and her intonation remained true even in the upper reaches.
This is not a role that requires a wide acting range, and she tended to be remote even in her most emotional moments. But that suited the character, and her performance overall was visceral, forcefully and uninhibitedly sung, and thoroughly memorable. And as for her “Casta diva,” the great test piece of this role, Khudoley demonstrated fine musicianship, with sensitivity and taste, and a delicacy that was added to the mood of hushed reverence.
Dana Beth Miller, an American mezzo singing three performances as Adalgisa — her last one is tonight; she’s headed to Berlin’s Deutsche Oper for Mrs. Sedley in Britten’s Peter Grimes — was every bit as powerful as Khudoley, and with a dark, richly hued mezzo that contrasted beautifully with her romantic rival’s, and that blended juicily with Khudoley’s in their duet singing.
Miller managed to make a strong acting impact even in a somewhat static tableau; Muni has her quietly commit suicide at the very end, cutting her throat with a golden scythe, while the end game of Pollione, Norma and the Druids’s temple is played out behind her. I liked this idea, and I think it worked well, though it did lead you to hope she would sing something else, since she was in full view of the audience at the front of the stage.
Her voice was especially radiant when singing in the end of Act I’s first scene, in her love duet with Pollione (“Vieni in Roma”), sung here by the Chilean tenor Giancarlo Monsalve. He is an excellent Pollione, with a strong, virile, bronze-like tenor with high Italianate coloring in abundance. He has an enviably easy vocal power, and he is a handsome man who was quite persuasive as an enemy to whom two women would defect.
Bass Craig Colclough, a veteran of the FGO stage who stepped in for Turkish bass Burak Bilgili, made a splendid Oroveso. He has a large voice that has uniformity throughout its range, and an edge to it that made it truly memorable. FGO’s Norma interpolated “Norma il predisse, o Druidi,” which the young Wagner composed in 1839 for a production in Paris, but the great bass Luigi Lablache turned it down. It’s too bad he did, because it works very well: It’s more akin to young Verdi than Bellini, and it has a snaky chromatic scale motif that sticks out from all the other music around it. But it works, and Colclough gave it everything he had, glorying in its fire-breathing text urging the Druids to a bloody revenge.
Two South Florida natives and members of the Young Artists Program filled the two remaining roles. Soprano Sarah Payne’s Clotilde was very fine; she has a soft cushion to her voice that fit this caretaker character quite well and made it more believable. Tenor Edgar Miguel Abréu was much weaker as Flavio, with distracting intonation problems. But it’s a pretty voice, and it’s likely that opening-night jitters Saturday night at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami were to blame for the audience not getting to hear it at its best.
Katherine Kozak’s well-drilled chorus did admirably well, with gentle accompaniment for “Casta diva,” and high excitement for the Wagner aria and for “Guerra, guerra!” Anthony Barrese led a first-class orchestra that played more or less spotlessly, his singers followed him expertly, and his tempos were logical and dramatically appropriate.
Muni’s stage direction stresses the defiance of the Druids, who in the opening reject, en masse, with a giant thump, bowls of soup that the Romans have handed to them. The Wagner addition adds a greater sense of energy that Muni is able to draw on by giving Oroveso and his company vigorous action, and the Adalgisa suicide is a shocking but effective touch. He was apparently trying to present the Druids as carrying out a hunger strike, which doesn’t come across, but aside from that, this is one of the most animated mountings of the opera I’ve seen, and that helps get the audience through some of the Bellinian longueurs, lovely as they are, of the second act.
The production, borrowed from the Cincinnati Opera, is a fine one, with an evocative mountain-pass set by John Conklin, who also provided the equally evocative costumes. Some of the supertitles for Oroveso and the chorus, provided here by Lexica Productions, were absent during the final minutes, which was not a big loss as far as plot development, but it was annoying, and needs to be addressed.
This is as muscular a Norma as you’re likely to see outside the biggest houses, and the stellar singing of its principals is the chief reason. Backed by a fine chorus and orchestra, working on a good set with a smart directorial concept, this is a memorable production that shows Florida Grand Opera in good form in an already satisfying season.
Norma can be seen at 8 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami, and at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 and Feb. 13 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Mary Elizabeth Williams sings Norma opposite Frank Porretta tonight and Friday, and Catherine Martin sings Adalgisa starting Friday through the remainder of the run. Call 800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org.