Until March 24
Kennedy Center Opera House
2700 F St., NW
As Angela Meade, star of Washington National Opera’s new production of “Norma,” stepped onstage Saturday night, a palpable tension hovered over the opera house. The Druid high priestess is the role of a lifetime, and Meade was standing in the historic shadow of the greats who made this character their own — Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland spring most readily to mind. Yet from Meade’s first commanding lines to a ravishing pianissimo, she quickly demonstrated that this was to be a night to remember.
DC Theater audiences are the first to see Meade in a full production of the opera, and while one can make minor quibbles (coloratura could be more fluid, a little more vocal fire would have been nice and that pianissimo was a touch overused), she just might become the next great Norma. Her acting skills, both vocal and physical, drew the audience into rapture during the most intimate moments, whether contemplating killing her own children or taking to the pyre in an act of defiant truth.
The rising star soprano was well served by an impactful production created by theater and opera director Anne Bogart (a lesbian). A raked stage was flanked by two structures — one the organic wooden temple of the Druid priestesses and the other the cold, patriarchal fortress of the invading Romans. Between them was a sunken circle, a sacred ground invoked by Norma and others as sanctuary and emotional crucible.
Norma ends up in a complicated love triangle with the Roman general Pollione (Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila) and a lower-level acolyte Adalgisa (legendary American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick). The 60-year-old Zajick confidently commanded the dramatic and vocal line of the unwitting rival, and she let fly a few delicate high notes that one didn’t think possible for a mezzo. Some of the compositional peaks of the opera include two duets for the women, whose voices were a perfect blend, alternately evoking gentle ripples of water and torrents of emotional heartbreak.
Although “Norma” relies ultimately on its women, the men are represented strongly in two principal roles and a chorus of Druid warriors (well sung by the WNO chorus). Norma’s father and chief priest Oroveso, as sung by Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, was an austerely commanding presence with a deeply resonant bass possessed of heroic overtones. His spear-shaking rage, however, was touchingly softened at the opera’s end upon hearing the pleas of his ruined daughter. Belosselskiy’s acting here was none of the fist-biting nonsense that has become the stuff of opera parody; he was a man broken open by unforeseen circumstances.
The frat-boy Pollione is no easy sell, and while Davila bestowed the fickle general with human complexity, he came up short shrift vocally. Phrasing was splendidly Italianate, but his tone sounded congested, with top notes muddled as if he were singing under water. Part of what elevates the end of act one into a heart-throbbing climax is a heroic tenor who rails against Norma, yet here, he was just a whiney schoolboy.
Twenty-nine year-old Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni made his WNO debut on Saturday night and his was an exciting reading of a score many consider moldering. From the first notes, he firmly established the tension of the evening to come and the frenetic emotions of its leading characters were often reflected in the quick and crisp tempos of the orchestra. The players sounded spot-on, with a perfect balance amongst themselves and with the singers. As with Meade, Rustioni glossed over some elements that will probably iron themselves out with the passage of time (certain dramatic moments ask for a longer hold, drawing out the pathos of a confession or desperate entreaty).
The greatest benchmark for any performing artist’s work is when the piece itself becomes exalted and with this production of “Norma,” Bellini’s masterwork soared high on a wave of well-deserved adulation. One hopes that under the new artistic directorship of Francesca Zambello (who stood at the doors of the opera house on Saturday night graciously welcoming patrons) next season promises similarly thrilling nights at the opera.