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Caramoor Presents a New Queen of Bel Canto

New York
Caramoor Festival Hall
07/10/2010 -  & July 16*
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
Angela Meade (Norma), Keri Alkerna (Adalgisa), Emmanuel de Villarosa (Pollione), Daniel Mobbs (Oroveso)
Orchestra and chorus of St. Luke’s, William Crutchfield (conductor)

A. Mead (courtesy of Caramoor Festival)

A second performance of a semi-staged production of Norma was presented at Caramoor in Katonah, New York, on Friday, July 16th. One of opera’s most beautiful and challenging works was undertaken by up and coming talent as part of the Festival’s Bel Canto program. Will Crutchfield, the director of opera at Caramoor, conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, attending meticulously to detail.

A pre-concert lecture by musicologist Andrew Porter, who had heard Maria Callas sing the role several times, hinted that we were about to hear a new real deal in the role, a young singer, Angela Meade, who has already won every award there is. "Casta Diva," the drop dead gorgeous aria, which she sings as soon as she enters in the first act, has been her calling card. Meade said on Soundcheck, "I sing the aria cold in competition, but I also sing the aria cold in the opera. After a short recitative, I’m on."

Sopranos have always quaked and salivated at the prospect of singing Norma. Some have quaked and salivated themselves into a mistake, like Lilli Lehmann, whose mother warned her away from the role. Great as she was in every other role she sang, no one was unkind enough to comment on her Norma. Lehmann remarked that singing all three Brünnhildes in the Ring in one evening was less stressful than the singing of one Norma. Peril lies in Norma’s path. This is part of the excitement for the prospective audience.

Angela Meade has a robust, flexible soprano voice backed by guts. Singing "Casta Diva" she hit the ground running. Her beautiful low-medium range was on display from the first A natural, falling beautifully to a low F. She then easily stretched up to a high D, in the first and second parts. In the third part, "A noi volgi il bel sembiante," the register rises to a stunning B flat, the climax of the aria, which quickly descends to the low F. All registers seemed comfortable for Meade. She didn’t break a sweat during the evening, although temperatures were well above 90 in the open air theater.

Chary of displaying the force of her top in the first act, she opened up full throttle in the second and thrilled with intricate embellishments and strong declamations. Her dynamic control, permitting her to go from an almost whispered pianissimo to incredibly big notes, which were never forced, announces that attention must be paid: A big career is at its start.

While June Anderson and Callas display both womanly emotions and the authoritative leadership of the Druidic high priestess of Gaul, Meade took her time getting to the commanding part of the role. Bellini devised the opera both to display the beautiful singing of bel canto, which includes both sensitivity and accuracy of pitch in extreme vocal situations and also penetration and detailed communication of the emotions encompassed by the music and drama.

We do not have recordings for Guiditta Pasta for whom Bellini wrote the role, but Callas said that until her own interpretation, the "bel" and not the "tortured emotional" arc were emphasized: she opened up the role to the deep feeling texture Bellini had composed. Hints of the full drama were heard in this semi-staged production.

Porter read an interesting remark by Bellini, who talked about first addressing the drama, then the words and finally writing music to reflect the poetry and the emotion. Meade must have attacked the role in this order, because she richly revealed the drama and poetry as she sang. While she was initially tentative in her portrayal of the conundrum presented by Norma’s pledge to virginity and her love for the two children created in lust for Pollione, a Roman pro-consul in Gaul, clearly Meade can handle the demanding vocal range and the dynamics. As she develops in the role, we should have a great Norma.

Her friend and opponent in love, Adalgisa, was sung by the superb soprano Keri Alkema, whose dramatic and vocal ability were fully deployed. Emmanuel de Villarosa as the fickle Roman officer, Pollione, who is ravishing both Norma and Adalgisa, was reported "indisposed" but sport enough to sing. As he protected his ailing voice, you could sense his dramatic ability. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs was forceful and rich in the role of Norma’s father, Oroveso. Wagner, who hated Italian opera but loved this one, wrote another aria for him (in addition to more choral music). On Friday, like Wagner, we were left wanting more.

The acoustics at Caramoor are wonderful. This surprises, because we are sitting in a tent. The unusual swoops of the ceiling must contribute to the true and even tones throughout the theater. The Venetian arches on the stage are surprisingly neutral. A blue light behind them provided background in Act I. In Act II, the orange of an ignited funeral pyre forecasts the immolation of two principal characters. Both attract and interest the eye.

Will Crutchfield conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. The Bellini orchestral accompaniment is a wonderful composition designed to foreshadow, echo and support the voices. In Crutchfield’s hands, Bellini hardly seems a "sigh in dancing pumps" – nasty poet Heinrich Heine’s description of him. The music is virile in structure, supporting exquisite melodies of great passion. Bellini’s harmonic modulations a third up or down were picked up and used often by Verdi.

Crutchfield is committed to putting young talent on display, and he has a home run in Meade. It is daring for a big opera house to undertake Norma, and this simple production with fabulously talented performers certainly did the stunning work justice.

Lovers of the form greeted Meade with enthusiasm and optimism for her future. Newcomers were entranced by the magic she wove with her big, bold and yet subtle voice. Set on pastoral grounds and in a firm production, Caramoor brings Meade closer to grand opera roles, which surely will be hers in the coming years.

The Caramoor Festival website
The Angela Meade website

Susan Hall



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