Washington’s First Norma
DAR Constitution Hall
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
Hasmik Papian (Norma), Irina Mishura (Adalgisa), Richard Margison (Pollione), Kyle Ketelsen (Oroveso), Keri Alkema (Clotilde), Israel Lozano (Flavio)
Paolo Micciche (Stage Director, Visual Design, Scenic Concept), Alberto Spiazzi (Costume Design), Benedick Miller (Lighting Design)
Emmanuel Villaume (Conductor)
Washington Opera Chorus
The Washington Opera’s first ever production of Bellini’s Norma was, by all vocal standards, a significant success. The opera requires top notch, dramatic singing that is capable of relaying the genius of the work’s structure—a masterful merger of libretto, emotions, and musical line.
Without question, the titular role has become a defining one for sopranos brave enough to tackle the coloratura demands, the sustained lyrical line, and the dramatic overtones. Even top operatic superstars have attempted the role and failed miserably. Fortunately, this was not the case with Washington’s Hasmik Papian, a powerhouse Armenian soprano whose rich, creamy soprano is one in which to luxuriate. Papian’s technique was concise and clear, her pitch perfect, and her control extraordinary.
Hers was a vocal Norma that easily ranks among the best. Theatrically, however, things could have been stronger. Considering the dramatic implications of the story—love, deceit, revenge, reunification through death—how much more total and complete would have been her characterization had Norma’s more impassioned lines been delivered with greater degrees of dramatic passion, an obvious shortfall in character development and delivery. How strange that stage director Paolo Micciche, who actually teaches acting for opera singers (in Siena), didn’t extend the benefits of his curriculum to Papian. But then, dramatically, all of the principals could have benefited from a strong director’s hand. Granted, Norma isn’t an action-packed vehicle; but, there are emotional highs and lows that deserve recognition and help feed the general storyline.
In none of these cases, however, did the missing theatrical link truly turn attention from the singing which, overall, was superb. Supporting Papian and supplying a likewise sumptuous voice was Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura as Adalgisa. Together, they made extraordinarily gorgeous music, two voices in perfect synch and cycle. Absolute excellence. Appealing deliveries were also delivered by the esteemed Canadian tenor Richard Margison, as Pollione, and the most impressive American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Oroveso. The Washington Opera chorus rounded off the vocals with impressive and cohesive presentations.
Micciche was also responsible for the scenic concept and visual design, the sum of which focused on high tech visual projections. Assuredly, working with the limitations of Constitution Hall, the company’s temporary home away from home, is a challenge for any designer-director. Without a proscenium from which to fly scenery, the reliance on cutting edge visual technologies and other multimedia tools and techniques is understandable. And, in fact, it’s desirable. There’s nothing wrong with innovation, especially when it works. But, with Micciche’s concept-design, it didn’t. Largely the problem was the images, which were difficult to discern. Attention shouldn’t be drawn from the singing at hand in trying to figure out what these giant-sized images were supposed to be, especially the abstract ones. Then, too, the images tended to wash over the cast, which had the Druids looking as if they had tattoos. And then there was the mistletoe cutting moment that found projections (presumably of a forest) being cast on a long curtain that was positioned beside the rock (substituting as an altar); if you didn’t know the story or the program notes didn’t detail action, you’d never quite guess what was going on with that sickle. And on and on.
Once again, cutting edge is not undesirable. And some of Micciche’s attempts did, in fact, work quite well. But for the most part, the projections got in the way. This writer works in multimedia application to educational environments and can attest to the cardinal rule that one should never use technology for the sake of using technology. It must assist, not hinder. It should never be the focus of effort.
Fortunately, the production’s superior vocal efforts outweighed the lacking theatrics and won the day. Emmanuel Villaume led the Washington Opera orchestra with heightened sensitivity and emotional understanding, drawing dimension and intensity from the score which, in turn, helped the singing to soar.
John C. Shulson