Opera Review: “Norma” at the Kennedy Center

Angela Meade takes on an iconic part in the Washington National Opera’s production of the Bellini opera.

By: Sudip Bose

Has there been a debut more eagerly anticipated than that of Angela Meade in the role of the druid priestess Norma, heroine of Vincenzo Bellini’s masterful opera of the same name? The buzz surrounding this young soprano began when Meade triumphed at the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, performing the cavatina “Casta Diva” from the first act of Norma. Meade subsequently sang the role in a concert setting, leading some critics to proclaim her the next great Norma—undue pressure, to be sure, for someone so young. For one thing, the role is astoundingly difficult, requiring elegance and stamina, an impeccable coloratura technique, and raw vocal heft. But it’s also terrain that’s been marked by the greatest voices of the last century, including Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, who owned the part, though in markedly different ways.

Meade’s traversal of the role with the Washington National Opera (in a production directed by Anne Bogart) is her first fully staged version. And for many reasons, her performance on Tuesday evening was memorable. She has an instrument that can do just about anything, and though much can be said about her effortless coloratura, her thrilling high notes, and the way she floats the quietest notes to irresistible effect, I was most impressed by the colors in her voice, as well as her musicality. Yes, this is virtuoso music. But Meade’s virtuosity always seems to be in service of the text. Her tone is both voluptuous and piercing (in her “Casta Diva,” a plea for peace in the face of Roman conquest), round and supple (in the marvelous second-act recitative “Dormono entrambi … non vedran la mano” and in the arioso that follows), and almost always pure. In the ensembles that close both acts, Meade sculpts long, arcing lines—a master class in breath control.

My reservations with her performance have nothing to do with her outstanding voice, but rather with her acting. Admittedly, Norma is a work composed of block-like scenes, with very little movement on stage. Even so, I had the feeling throughout much of the evening that Meade was performing as if she were on the concert, not operatic, stage. Much of the time she’s motionless as she sings (think of a soloist standing before an orchestra), her gestures limited mainly to extending her arms in a moment of sympathy, or averting her head to suggest anger. Norma is an ever-tormented creature, torn between her love for the Roman proconsul, Pollione, and her duties as priestess to the druids of Gaul. She explodes in jealous rage at her younger rival, Adalgisa, then expresses to this same woman the most heartfelt and genuine sympathy. She is a loving mother—who nearly carries out an unthinkable infanticide. Meade doesn’t quite communicate all this torment, the wild swings of emotion that lead her character to call for peace and fiery vengeance almost in the same breath. As an actor, she’s too one-dimensional. That she can absolutely convey these feelings vocally is all the more frustrating. I constantly wanted to close my eyes during the performance and simply listen; If I’d heard her performance on the radio, I’d have thought it unimpeachable.

Norma is an opera of memorable ensemble work, especially the duets featuring Norma and Adalgisa, sung with real meat and thrust by mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick. (She, too, can float a pianissimo, and cover the entire dynamic range in a note, with one great surging crescendo.) Together, they make a formidable pair. In their first-act “Ah! sì, fa core e abbracciami,” they rise up singing in thirds—a hair-raising moment. The famous second-act duet “Mira, o Norma” displays both Meade and Zajick in full coloratura dress, their subsequent “Si, fino all’ore estreme” (also featuring passages of thirds) equally as exciting.

Bass Dmitry Belosselskiy was more than impressive as Oroveso, the head of the druids, his voice possessing power, authority, and gravitas, precise in both articulation and attack. I would love to hear him sing the great dramatic bass roles in the literature—indeed, I wished there’d been more in Norma for him to sing. As Pollione, tenor Rafael Dávila was a bit thin, occasionally unsteady, in the upper register, but was best in the work’s tender passages, which showed off an appealing creaminess in his voice. The chorus sang powerfully in “Guerra, guerra! Le galliche selve,” but the orchestra played less successfully. These days, the orchestra seems to veer from excellent to sloppy, depending on who’s conducting. Last night, with the very young (he was born in 1983) Daniele Rustioni making his WNO debut, there were far too many bad entrances (in the brass) and imprecise attacks. Perhaps more crucially, Rustioni had a rather foursquare approach to phrasing and tempo, despite all the balletic energy he expended in the pit.

Nevertheless, the evening was, on the whole, remarkable, with a young singer staking her claim to a legendary role by the time the final, anguished ensemble reached its climax. In the future, Meade may give audiences a more fully realized characterization of the druid priestess (one possessed of more naked wrath, say). But for pure vocal splendor—and you could argue that in Bellini, and in this Bellini opera in particular, the apotheosis of singing for singing’s sake, vocal splendor is all that matters—her time is happily now.

Norma runs at the Kennedy Center Opera House through March 24. Tickets ($25 to $300) are available via the Kennedy Center’s website.