This season marks the first ever that the Washington Opera has staged Vincenzo Bellini's Norma. And despite the hardships of DAR Constitution Hall, the production brilliantly conjures the strange spiritual world of the Druids where we watch the emotional unraveling of their high priestess, Norma.
Nearly everything done here has been done right, from the creative use of slides projected over both the stage and actors, to the thoughtful use of the chorus and extras to represent the Druid society -- maidens, chieftains, male and female warriors. But the success of the production is about Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian, who sings Norma. In a stunningly intense yet superbly understated performance, Papian carries this entire opera from the moment she sets foot on stage.
Norma is known as a bel canto piece, a term which essentially describes the way in which the singer moves from one note to the next. In bel canto, the idea is to create a sense of flow, sustaining the phrases and moods with delicacy. Papian is a sublime practitioner of this art, singing with a velvet smoothness, literally stroking the notes with her voice. It's pure magic. Her rendition of the famous first act aria "Casta Diva " is glorious and yet full of underlying emotional darkness.
Papian's priestess is a phenomenon. You sense the young, head-strong girl in Norma, who, though she no longer has the allure of young beauty, has instead the magnetism of a spiritually and morally certain older woman. We see the magnificence of her emotional struggles as she stares at us with eyes like lasers: one minute fierce coals of rage, the next soft with vulnerability. Alas, her erstwhile lover Pollione sees none of this grandeur until it's too late.
As Pollione, Richard Margison plies a satisfying, sometimes wonderful tenor and also acts with admirable understatement. Yet when the moment for emotion strike he does not project with color that Papian brings. Norma's father, Oroveso, is wonderfully sung by bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen, who acts this rather stock role with a nice reserve, avoiding too much of the grand gesturing that can turn the role of an "elder" into a hideous cliché.
Unfortunately, mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura as Adalgisa, Norma's rival, is the only lead to fall short. She's unconvincing as the young flower who has captured Pollione's heart and her higher notes fall into a strained vibrato. She tries very hard, but there is something missing here.
On the other hand, mention must be made of Washington Opera Domingo Young Artist Keri Alkema in the role of Clotilde, Norma's handmaiden. Alkema, singing with a strong golden tone, shows strong stage presence, and complements Papian's powerful Norma without being subsumed. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume does an excellent job of keeping this dark tale from losing its momentum.
This is one of the best productions the Washington Opera has staged in many seasons. Beg, borrow or steal to catch it.