Italian passion

LAWRENCE BUDMEN attended a concert performance of 
Bellini's 'Norma'

Vicenzo Bellini's 1831 operatic masterpiece Norma is the ultimate personification of bel canto (beautiful singing). Lyrical cantabile arias and florid vocal display pieces were the essence of operas by such early nineteenth century composers as Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and especially Vicenzo Bellini. (The vocal and instrumental writing of Mozart had a palpable influence on these composers.) These scores required singers with a beautifully produced, expressive sound and great vocal agility. Norma marked the climax of the bel canto era. The operas of Giuseppe Verdi would lead the art form to a new level of 'music drama'. Yet the beauty of Bellini's arias and ensembles would leave a lasting mark on operatic history. No less a music dramatist than Richard Wagner admired Norma. (He referred to Bellini as 'the gentle Sicilian'.) Bellini's inspired melodies (by turns gentle and rousing) received a passionate, vociferous performance on 16 January 2004 at the Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, USA, when the Concert Association of Florida presented a brilliant concert version of Norma.

The story of the Druid Priestess Norma (who breaks her vows and has an affair with the Roman Proconsul Pollione, the oppressor of her people) inspired Bellini to compose some of his most divine melodies. The great soprano aria 'Casta Diva' has one of the most beautiful melodic lines in all opera. The duet for soprano and mezzo 'Mira o Norma' and its glittering cabaletta are distinguished by daring harmonics and challenging pyrotechnics. The composer expected four great singers for the leading roles -- artists with beautiful voices and power and stamina to spare. If the cast of this ambitious production was less than perfect, the four artists were all world class singers who delivered some thrilling vocalism.

The opera's title role requires a soprano with the dramatic power to sing high-lying declamation over the full orchestra and chorus. Yet she must also be able to sing a delicate cantabile line (with beautiful pianissimos) and brilliant coloratura. Singers with these super human talents are always rare. Over the past half century Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Monserrat Caballé have set the standard for this fiendishly difficult role. Recently Jane Eaglin, Christine Goerke, Galina Gorshakova, and Lauren Flanagan have attempted the role with varying degrees of success.

The brilliant Russian soprano Maria Guleghina is a familiar presence at New York's Metropolitan Opera, Milan's La Scala, London's Covent Garden, and many other operatic venues. Two seasons ago she gave a thrilling concert of Verdi arias for the Concert Association. Her return engagement as Norma did not disappoint. Wearing a flaming red gown, Guleghina had terrific stage presence. The vaulting power of her soprano astounds the ear. Unlike many sopranos who find 'Casta Diva' trying for an entrance aria, Guleghina sang it with warmth and beautifully supported soft tones. For much of the first act she did not have her powerful instrument totally under control and there was some wayward intonation. In the second act Guleghina focused her vocal resources and produced some remarkable singing. Her confrontation scene with Pollione was thrilling. The anger and passion of her dramatic declamation was stunning. The beauty of the final duet -- as Norma sacrifices herself for her sins -- capped an impressive performance of one of opera's most challenging heroines. Guleghina has real 'star quality'. A thrilling Norma!

In many ways the American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich (as the priestess Adalgisa) stole the show. In 2001 this gifted artist sang this role impressively in a production of Norma at the Palm Beach Opera. Recently she has made important débuts in Rome, Naples, Florence, and Dusseldorf. Aldrich cuts a beautiful, stunning figure on stage. She dominated every one of her scenes. She is a major vocal talent. Her darkly burnished, dusky sound is strikingly beautiful. Her rich, lustrous vocalism was stunning! The beauty of her phrasing and the dramatic intensity of her musical utterance were superb! The voluptuous beauty of Aldrich's mezzo sound is the stuff of which operatic legends are made. Her coloratura singing was often breathtaking! Aldrich is also an intelligent musician. She blended beautifully with Guleghina in their duets and really produced vocal sparks. In a role that Marilyn Horne used to own, Aldrich gave a stellar performance. Here was truly great singing. Kate Aldrich is destined for operatic stardom!

Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra received considerable publicity when he substituted for Luciano Pavarotti at the Met. He is a pillar of conductor Ricardo Muti's ensemble of singers at La Scala, where he has starred in many Verdi operas. A handsome presence on stage, Licitra processes a robust, very Italianate tenor voice. Yet in many ways his performance was disappointing. His high notes were sometimes strained. The voice can turn harsh under pressure. Much of the time his eyes were glued to the musical score. This did not allow him to have much theatrical contact with his fellow artists. Probably due to his reliance on the score, much of his vocalism lacked emotional or expressive nuance. (He could not match Guleghina or Aldrich for dramatic intensity in the trio that concludes Act 1.) Licitra remains a promising singer. He was at his best in the concluding duet. Here, his plush Italian tenor sound was wonderful.

The role of the Druid leader Oroveso (Norma's father) can often seem one dimensional and musically ambiguous, but not in the imposing vocal and dramatic presence of Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov. Vinogradov is a modern day exponent of the great Russian school of vocalism. His deep, evenly produced basso profundo rolls out like rich lava. This young singer has already established a presence at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin. His gorgeous dark bass is simply beautiful. (There is not the slightest hint of vibrato in his voice.) Vinogradov made Oroveso's scenes riveting by the sheer tonal beauty of his singing. A great voice!

In the secondary role of Norma's confidante Clotilde, American soprano Tamara Mesic revealed a lovely, light soubrette voice and charming stage presence. (Oscar in Verdi's Ballo en Maschera would be an ideal role for this delightful young singer.) Tenor Brian Anderson offered lyrical tones as Pollione's friend Flavio. The Druids' choral scenes were given rousing voice by a splendid chorus. FIU Chorale director John Augenblick led his forces in strong voiced perorations. The lyrical moments were deftly sung with fine balancing of the choral sections.

The special Festival Orchestra (strongly led by guest concertmaster Charles Haupt) produced some brilliant playing. In the beautiful melody at the opening of the second act, a splendid cello section produced a rich sound. The clarion trumpet playing of Jeffrey Kaye was particularly outstanding. Italian conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli obtained splendid, fiery ensemble playing. He brought strong intensity and passion to Bellini's tempestuous masterpiece. Yet this music needed more Mozartean elegance. Too often Brignoli was relentless where lyrical repose was wanted. This hard-working conductor brought great enthusiasm and authority to the performance -- a real pro was clearly in charge.

Norma is one of nineteenth century Italian opera's true masterworks. The Concert Association produced a strong production of this monumental work (in a restrained semi-staging by Mignon Dunn and Richard Barrett). The glorious vocalism of Maria Guleghina and Kate Aldrich made this presentation an evening to remember!

Copyright © 20 January 2004 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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