Saturday, January 24, 2009

Opera review: Swenson shines brightest in vigorous 'Norma'

Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs as Norma.
(Photo by Alissa Dragun)


By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH — The difference between the operas of the bel canto tradition and the operas of Giuseppe Verdi that followed them is one of greater psychological insight, surely, but more importantly, it's a difference of brute energy.

The operas of a bel canto composer such as Vincenzo Bellini are primarily about vocal display, and the lead roles in a work such as Bellini's Norma, which opened Friday night at the Kravis Center as the second opera in Palm Beach Opera's current season, are stamina-draining events in which the singer must freeze the attention of the audience as the orchestra politely lays back and lets it happen.

Palm Beach's Norma was effective and engaging if not vocally overwhelming Friday evening, with the best singing of the night coming from a supporting role, and with a committed conductor making a furious case for Bellini in the pit by giving every last piece of muscle in the score a workout.

As Norma, soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs has one of the most difficult assignments in the repertory, having to go from imperious Druid CEO at one moment to jilted lover at another, and suffering mother at still another. Blancke-Biggs has a strong, bronzelike voice, but in much of the first act she sounded constricted and underpowered. Her voice started to warm up toward the end of the act in the closing duet and trio, and by the second act — notably in the opening Dormono entrambi — she had much more presence.

Her Casta Diva, which comes almost immediately after her first entrance, was therefore not particularly rich or full, but it was elegant and lovingly phrased, and with tasteful work by the Palm Beach Opera chorus in the background, this most celebrated aria came off with tenderness and a palpable sense of devotion.

The Italian tenor Renzo Zulian made a fine Pollione, singing with force and strength throughout. He has a very attractive timbre to his lightly colored voice that would probably be heard to even better effect in more romantic roles, but in moments such as the first-act cavatina Meco all'altar di Venere, he showed he could be persuasively caddish.

As Oroveso, the bass Luiz-Ottavio Faria was excellent, with a beautiful instrument that commanded attention each time he sang and that ideally suited his stern stage presence. Good singing in minor roles also came from Susan Jean Hellman as Clotilde and Rolando Sanz as Flavio. The choral singing with the full Druid community was fine in the closing scenes, but much weaker when it was the men alone, specifically in the second scene of Act II, as the restless soldiers question Oroveso.

But it was Ruth Ann Swenson, as Adalgisa, who offered the night's best singing, and this was true even though each of her climactic fifth-above-the-tonic showboat notes were somewhat soft at the edges. Swenson's soprano is warm and big, and it fills the stage even when she's singing throwaway lines. With her appearance in the first act, the Palm Beach Opera production took on more life and excitement, and it was with her work that this Norma came closest to its identity as a singers' opera.

This extended even to Swenson's duets with Blancke-Biggs, beginning with the Rimembranza in the first act and in particular with the Si, fino all'ore estreme pairing that closes the first scene of Act II. The two women sounded very good together, and you could hear Blancke-Biggs' voice easing and expanding as she sang with Swenson. Those duets provided the best vocal fireworks of the evening, too, drawing the most attention from the large audience as well as its most enthusiastic reaction.

Visually, the opera looked good, if static, with period costumes and easy-to-follow stage business. The Cincinnati Opera set used by Palm Beach Opera features two impressive temple walls and a shifting backdrop through which the moon could wane and wax, and it proved useful for the action of the opera, which essentially is a domestic melodrama despite its trappings of ancient Gaul.

Linda Brovsky's stage direction was rather stiff, perhaps not surprising given the limitations of the drama. But one wonders whether there would been some other options here and there; surely, for example, there would be a better way of presenting Norma's struggle with matricide than simply having her children lie down on a blanket.

Palm Beach Opera is indeed fortunate to have Bruno Aprea as its music director; he obviously loves this score and it's hard to imagine how someone could advocate for it more strenuously than he does. The Guerra, guerra! choral song in Act II, for instance, was taken at a whipcrack pace that worked much better than the usual tempo of stentorian majesty, and throughout the performance he could be seen shaping each of Bellini's phrases lovingly and carefully.

The orchestra, which contains of some of the area's finest players, responded beautifully, and it has to be said that only with a performance like this, one that stresses Bellini's vigor as much as his languor, that you can hear the Verdian direction in which the composer might have gone had he lived past age 33.

Norma continues today at 7:30 p.m. with Jennifer Check as Norma, Alan Glassman as Pollione and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Adalgisa. Blancke-Biggs, Zulian and Swenson return at 2 p.m. Sunday, and Check, Glassman and Harmer take the stage at 2 p.m. Monday. All performances at the Kravis Center, West Palm Beach. Tickets: $23-$175. Call 833-7888 (PB Opera) or 832-7469 (Kravls), or visit www.pbopera.org or www.kravis.org.

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