When people in the opera world – singers, impresarios, fans – talk about the great modern Normas, the heroine of the Bellini opera and one of the most taxing roles in all of opera, the names that get bandied around are inevitably the same. Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe, Maria Callas. All of whom gave memorable portrayals of the Druid priestess who eventually marches to a funeral pyre because of her profane sins of love.
Time to add another name – Sondra Radvanovsky. The now-Canadian diva, performing in the COC’s Norma, which opened Thursday night, gave a reading of the role which is the kind of performance that could be talked about for generations. In the Callas, Sutherland, Caballe category – an intensely thrilling, spine-chilling demonstration of a great artist at the peak of her powers, an exhilarating, blissful performance.
And actually, I think Radvanovsky’s performance has only one true rival – that of Maria Callas. That’s the level we’re talking about here. That’s because Radvanovsky, like Callas, is a supremely gifted actor as well as singer, and her Norma is a theatrical as well as a vocal marvel. The Radvanovsky voice is so unusual in its depth, so flexible and controlled in its dynamic range and palette of vocal colours. But not a single note, not a single pianissimo opening to full forte, not the most demanding run or simplest declamation, is ever used in this production except to expose Norma’s character and her ridiculously wide emotional range. Norma is the great soprano role not just because it’s so hard to sing, but because every emotion imaginable is expected of the character – betrayal, love, jealousy, maternal affection, warlike leadership – and in Radvanovsky’s portrayal, we heard every one.
And as brilliant as Radvanovsky was on Thursday, she wasn’t alone. Isabel Leonard’s role debut as Adalgisa, Norma’s acolyte/BFF/rival, was equally nuanced and complete. Leonard is perhaps the finest acting singer we’ve had on the COC stage for some time, and those theatrical chops, combined with her thrilling, beautifully expressive voice, made her an absolutely riveting character every time she stepped on stage. She was able to match Radvanovsky run for run, emotion for emotion – no easy feat. And Russell Thomas’s Pollione, the Roman consul both women fall for, tried his best to make his character come off the page, using his tremendous tenor voice to great effect, especially when he muted it to a whisper and revealed his character’s most intimate feelings. In the pit, conductor Stephen Lord and the COC orchestra provided a sure, subtle and sympathetic accompaniment, proving the fluid base on which the vocal greatness onstage could soar.
While Kevin Newbury’s direction and concept were a little pedestrian, updating Norma a bit without disturbing its basic feel, he was wise enough to stay out of the way of his tremendous cast, and let the vocal purity and excellence shine through. The COC Chorus gave another of their fine performances.
It would be unfair to say that the entire evening belonged to the greatness of Sondra Radvanovsky’s astonishing performance, because her colleagues onstage and in the pit were all excellent. But in the end, Norma depends on Norma. And this COC production gave us probably the most sumptuous characterization in the COC’s history. A performance to resonate for a lifetime.
Norma runs through Nov. 5 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (coc.ca).Report Typo/Error
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