Sunday, November 14, 2010

Kansas City Lyric Opera: Norma

It is kind of a moot point reviewing the Kansas City Lyric Opera's production of Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma" while its final performance is underway. I saw it last Wednesday and just now, on a cool Sunday evening, am getting around to putting my impressions in print. It is not like a ton of people would go based on my musings anyway or the cast was waiting up late at a cocktail party waiting for my make or break review to come in, as in the old movies.

What was most surprising is that the Lyric, in its 50+ years of performances, had never produced Norma. I heard various reasons; lack of strong voices and lack of a decent English translation (for ages, the Lyric only performed in English) were the ones I heard most. So a debut of sorts for an 1831 opera.

The wait worth it? Soprano Brenda Harris as Norma, the Druid High Priestess and soprano Laura Vlasak Nolen as Adalgisa (which I always want to call Analgesia), while no Sutherland and Horne (or the great Shirley Verrett for that matter)certainly had the power and range to tackle these most demanding roles. Together their voices blended well, Harris being a bit brighter than Nolen, bringing a power and poignancy to the wonderful duet "Mira, O Norma". Harris was fine, but restrained, in the beloved (and deservedly so) aria "Casta Diva" which sealed this opera's popularity and gave us a word that is now almost over used.

Short and powerfully built with a strong voice, tenor Rafael Davila, in the thankless role of the total ass Pollione, the Roman Proconsul of Gaul, was excellent. He was soft and seductive when paired with his love Norma, but bellicose and arrogant in the crowd scenes. The supporting cast was uniformly excellent.

I suppose to pay for the strong voices, the production had to cut costs in the scenery and supporting chorus. Diaphanous scrims and curtains sufficed as the forest primeval of Gaul, supporting an x-shaped set of tiered platforms and there was little variation between scenes. The chorus of Druids was skimpy and often drowned out by the orchestra. The great gong of the god Irminsul descended on the stage when required, again looking a bit skimpy and a tad tacky.

But the singing of Harris and Nolen, plus the brutish Davila, made this a worthy production and certainly whetted the audience's appetite for more bel canto operas. La Sonnambula maybe?

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