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A Triumphal Debut

Odeon of Herodes Atticus
08/28/2023 -  & August 30, 2023
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
Joyce El-Khoury (Norma), Theresa Carlomagno (Adalgisa), Mario Frangoulis (Pollione), Sava Vemic (Oroveso), Diamanti Kritsotaki (Clotilde), Alexander Marev (Flavio)
Fons Musicalis Mixed Choir, Kostis Konstantaras (Chorus Master), Greek Symphony Radio Orchestra, Eugene Kohn (Conductor)
Tom Volf (Stage Director), David Negrin (Sets), Yannis Metzikof (Costumes), Lefteris Pavlopoulos (Lighting), Ersie Pittas (Choreography)

J. El-Khoury (© Patroklos Skafidas)

Despite the oppressive heat, the 5,000 seat amphitheater was completely full. The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, on the southwest slope of the Acropolis, built in AD 161, is an ideal setting for Bellini’s Norma. Though Felice Romani’s libretto is not based on a Greek tragedy and the action takes place in Roman‑occupied Gaul, it shares intensity and poignancy with the great tragedies of Greek Antiquity. As compared to the 15,000 seat Arena di Verona or even the 9,000 seat Roman Theatre of Orange, France, this amphitheatre provides an ideal, much more intimate setting. Unlike Verona, there are very few seats with limited visibility or hampered sound. From where I was seated (in the centre of the amphitheatre), the acoustics were terrific.

The great Lilli Lehmann (1848‑1929) once said it was easier to sing all three Brünnhildes in one evening than one Norma. This demanding role requires a soprano with a firm coloratura and the dramatic intensity capable of expressing emotions ranging from tenderness, friendship, maternal love, jealousy, rage, self‑pity to despair. Lebanese-Canadian Joyce El‑Khoury, whose first Norma this is, triumphed on all fronts. The range of this lyric soprano is impressive. She had no difficulty with the coloratura of the Act I “Casta Diva”. Often, theatres are misled into casting a coloratura – hopefully not too light weight – in the role because of the demands of the famous aria. However, lighter voices cannot convey the necessary pathos in the rest of the role, especially the pivotal final scene. Equally wrong is the casting of a huge dramatic voice, as the coloratura in “Casta diva” would be laboured. El‑Khoury, with her ductile lyric soprano, easily alternated from a loving mother in “Dormono entrambi...i miei figli” preceding the Act II duet with Adalgisa, to a jealous lover and then a loving friend in that duet, a vindictive, spurned lover in “in mia man, alfin tu sei” and then a noble soul in the final “moriamo insieme”.

Newcomer American lyric soprano Theresa Carlomagno’s good looks make her a very credible Adalgisa. She is and looks quite young. She has a good presence and moves well on stage. Her voice is pleasant but she has a tendency to sound nasal on occasion. This makes her sound much older than Norma, when she is supposed to be a young, novice priestess. Though her diction in Italian is fine, she often has odd inflections, a mannerism some singers adopt to sound grandiose or “old school”. If she would sing more naturally, she could be brilliant. The choice of a lyric soprano rather than a mezzo in this role is less conventional. However, in Bellini’s time the distinction between soprano and mezzo was less sharp than it is today. The creator of the role, Giulia Grisi, was a soprano, as was the creator of Norma, Giuditta Pasta. Though Adalgisa is an important role, it mainly serves as an auxiliary to Norma’s. Vocally, the main purpose is the harmonious blending of the two voices in the two duets “Mira, o Norma” and “Oh, rimembranza”. Carlomagno’s voice certainly does that quite well.

Tenor Mario Frangoulis is hugely popular among the general Greek public who know him as a pop singer. Discovered by Cameron Macintosh, he debuted in the musical Les Misérables. He has since sung in many musicals in addition to having an international career as a pop singer in Greek, English, French, Italian and Spanish. Most would have been content with such immense success, but Frangoulis wanted to excel as an opera singer too. He studied with opera greats Carlo Bergonzi and Marilyn Horne, and he was Alfredo Kraus’s first private student. It is a testimony to this man’s determination that he is able to sing Pollione in addition to his careers in pop music and musicals. In his opening aria, “Meco all’altar di Venere”, his voice was often strained and sounded coarse in the upper register. Endowed with good looks, he has an imposing presence and is a natural on stage, a skill possibly acquired from his career in musical theatre. The vocal limitations in the first act disappeared in the second act, where he was likely inspired by El‑Khoury in their intense scenes together until the end of the opera.

Serbian bass Sava Vemic was a noble Oroveso, the village leader and Norma’s father. His deep, warm bass conveyed the necessary nobility and authority. He was especially moving in the final scene where Norma implores him for the well‑being of her children. Polish-Bulgarian tenor Alexander Marev was a de‑luxe Flavio. The timbre of this young tenor – he is just 23 years old – is beautiful and the voice projects very well. His dashing good looks will definitely help in a promising career. Greek mezzo Diamanti Kritsotaki was an accomplished Clotilde. Though the role is quite small, she had stage presence and conveyed kindness and empathy.

Author, photographer and director Tom Volf was an auspicious choice as the stage director of this production. After all, this is the 100th anniversary of Maria Callas’s birth. The venue, Odeon of Herodes Atticus, is one she had graced in 1944 and in 1957. Director of the film Maria by Callas, the most watched French film of 2018, as well as the stage play Maria Callas, Letters & Memoirs, based on his eponymous book, Tom Volf is a man with a huge affinity for Maria Callas with whom Bellini’s Norma is very much associated. Volf opted for a sober, traditional staging, as opposed to the increasingly common “modern” stagings and took full advantage of the impressive amphitheatre. Despite its huge size, the proscenium was always full, but with taste and never in a cluttered fashion. The chorus was elegantly placed on stage, reinforcing their Greek chorus aspect, despite this not being the role envisaged for it by the librettist, Felice Romani. By having the members of the chorus stand still, they became part of the sets rather than a distraction, thereby allowing the interaction between Norma, Adalgisa and Pollione to remain pivotal.

Volf introduced a haunting image: a looming, menacing figure, auguring death, accompanied by five followers. They dance at the interlude of Act II, that hauntingly elegiac orchestral music preceding Norma’s appearance on stage. They are a harbinger of death. During the call to war, “Guerra, guerra”, they perform a blood curdling dance ending with a red cloth at the sacrificial altar. That same cloth is used to represent the funeral pyre on which Norma immolates herself at the end of the opera. This was also a smart way of eschewing having an actual fire on stage.

Volf’s stage directions to El‑Khoury were reminiscent of Visconti’s with Callas in his La Scala production of Alceste, Gluck’s opera after Euripides’s Alcestis: no running around the stage, but rather to remain poised and move her hands expressively. The imposing effect of the gestures was facilitated by her dress, which had material attached from her hands to the back of the dress. This highlighted Norma’s nobility and increased the solemnity of the drama.

Another name associated with Maria Callas is conductor Eugene Kohn, who was her accompanist in her masterclasses at Julliard as well as on her final recitals. He even recreated his role as Callas’s accompanist in Zeffirelli’s Callas Forever. With a great musical lineage going back to Erich Leinsdorf, Thomas Schippers and Fausto Cleva, he accompanied Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli and the young Luciano Pavarotti. Though successful as an orchestral conductor, he has a special affection for opera. In this performance, he showed great attention to the singers’ needs. At times, he opted for slower than usual tempi (e.g. the Pollione-Adagisa duet), but this was to accommodate the singers. The orchestra, especially the cello and double bass sections, had some slight intonation problems in the overture, but all went well from there on.

Though some French, German and English could be heard, the public was overwhelmingly Greek which attests to the growing popularity of opera in Greece in recent years. Moreover, this production was not funded by the Greek Ministry of Tourism or Culture, but by a private cultural foundation, Lykofos, led by Yorgos Lykiardopoulos. The success of this venture will hopefully lead to more open air opera productions in the near future. The opera world needs more productions like this brilliant one.

Ossama el Naggar



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