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Brave New World

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
01/23/2016 -  & January 24*, 26, 29, 30, 2016
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
Mary Elizabeth Williams (Norma), Dana Beth Miller (Adalgisa), Frank Poretta (Pollione), Craig Colough (Oroveso), Sarah Payne (Clotilda), Edgar Miguel Abréu (Flavio)
Florida Grand Opera Chorus, Katherine Kozak (chorus master), Florida Grand Opera Orchestra, Anthony Barrese (conductor)
Nic Muni (director), John Conklin (scenic and costume design), Thomas Hase (lighting design)

M. E. Williams (© Lorne Grandison for Florida Grand Opera)

It is time to assess the changes that Florida Grand Opera has undergone with its new management beginning in 2012. The first season was a return to the standard repertory but after that, there was a good mixture of the bread and butter, a return of operas long ignored and a few new things to the rep. While not everything has been a giant success, the pluses have far outweighed the minuses. The future of this company is limitless when such dedication and imagination is uncovered.

“Finally!” is what so many Florida Grand Opera subscribers have been saying. Norma is the piece for which they have been begging over two decades. Whenever a company decides to offer it (and that sure isn’t often), much ado is made because the piece requires virtuoso performers. Singing is what counts in opera, especially in Bellini where the plot is never the main focus. Although when the cast is up to it, they dig into the drama that Bellini created from a seemingly simple storyline. Though not exceptionally long, this is an opera that is taxing on both the performers and the audience. The music is so tremendous that the second act feels as if there are four endings.

This is one of those rare performances when all the leads are on a particularly high level. Bass roles in Bellini generally do not offer singers the chance to show their dramatic worth. Craig Colough saw this as no obstacle and with a booming, clear and beautiful sound gave Oroveso a not often seen power. In this production he is both a loving father and also powerful leader of the Druid Resistance. His command of the long vocal line was impressive and his presence is felt even when the character is not onstage. Dana Beth Miller was the perfect Adalgisa; a very feminine woman with a powerful voice that clearly defines this character’s many changes in mood from young girl in a complicated love affair with a man who represents her nation’s enemy, to heartbroken and furious at his betrayal. She then becomes comrade with her lover’s spouse as she agrees to work for his downfall. Miller’s voice has a luscious power that begins in the true mezzo range but unfailingly leaps to the high demands of rage.

Frank Poretta’s Pollione has attention grabbing beauty of tone. This character never has the anger of his two ladies; Pollione is more guilt ridden. Poretta does not demonstrate the huge sound that comes so easily to the leading ladies which is perfectly in line with the story. But in the famous thrilling trio, he maintains the emotional balance that makes this one of opera’s most powerful first act closings.

Then there is the sublime Norma of Mary Elizabeth Williams. After a performance like this it will not be easy to savor recordings of the past. The clean long lines and floated pianissimos come from an age that many consider over. The vocal and physical dramatics are completely contemporary giving this oft maligned story a new dimension. The near murder of her children is for once completely believable and horrifying. Norma’s determination for suicide is the only logical conclusion and Williams gives it the essential unpretentious nobility. So often, a Norma is going to be judged by her “Casta diva”. We all know about the floated long lines but Williams has the power to make the quietest moments as memorable as the huge ones.

Edgar Miguel Abréu and Sarah Payne complete the cast as Flavio and Clotilde performing on a level indicating that with a little luck, their futures in the opera world are promising. Director Nic Muni has approached the libretto of Norma with a reverence that is not usually reached. The tenderness that Pollione shows his children makes his suicide in front of them all the more gut wrenching. Oroveso’s guerilla approach with his battalion is not as gentlemanly as we are accustomed in bel canto.

The tightness and precision of Florida Grand Opera’s wonderful orchestra under the direction of Anthony Barrese emphasizes Bellini’s power with passion and understatement. Often conductors eschew bel canto operas in favor of ones offering the opportunity of an enormous orchestra. Barrese proves once again that less is more. And the Florida Grand Opera chorus under the direction of Katherine Kozak goes to new levels of refinement. Along with simple but beautiful sets and costumes by John Conklin and the sensitive and intoxicating lighting of Thomas Hase add to what is probably Florida Grand Opera’s highest achievement in my twenty one years of attendance.

Jeff Haller



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