Event review: Florida Grand Opera’s Norma, a flawless display of the bel canto
Opening this past (by South Florida standards) freezing Saturday night, the Florida Grand Opera’s Norma, one of the most taxing and demanding operas from the Italians, was as flawless a performance as one could wish for. Before anyone starts with the pedantic comparisons to Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland, I’d like to note that the role, though difficult vocally, depends for its dramatis personae from the individual singer.
I can’t think that Bellini had too staunch an idea for his doomed Druid priestess that the role does not allow for “personality.” Norma is a conflicted character and whatever inner chasm Mlada Khudoley dipped from for inspiration served her well. A commanding figure from the get-go, Khudoley sang a beautiful “Casta diva” and intoned correctly throughout the piece.
While I initially believed that she came in a little thin at the beginning of the second act, I can say that by curtains I appreciated the holding back as she mounted a calculated rise in ire and passion that culminated in the simply delicious duet with Dana Beth Miller, playing her lover’s new interest, the virgin priestess Adalgisa.
The emotional turmoil that her character experiences is part of the reason as to why the role is so difficult and deemed a litmus test for sopranos; Khudoley was an ocean – angry and destructive, saddened and concerned, calm and cunning – every possible maritime action in the span of two acts. The duet was a show-stealer for Miller, who gave it all in a balanced and symbiotic manner to her scene partner.
Truly one of those moments in which words escape you but you know you’ve witnessed something of pure beauty. If Bellini’s platform for lyrical poesy was beautiful to begin with, these ladies elevated it to the sublime. Remarkable.
Soprano Sarah Payne as Clotilde, Norma’s assistant gave a strong vocal performance and a fine theatrical one of almost passive-aggressive emotions – quietly disapproving perhaps of Norma’s secret life but never betraying her loyalty and love for the priestess. Tenor Edgar Miguel Abréu, who we saw give a fantastic Ambrogio in this season’s opener The Barber of Seville was flawless in the micro-role of Flavio.
Giancarlo Monsalve, a Chilean tenor making his FGO debut played his part well. As the causality for strife between the two women, he brought the required naïveté of male idiocy that would cause such a situation in the first place. If this role is meant to be servile and cardboard-like, Monsalve gave the character believable warmth and sung his parts as base for the female lead.
The role of Oroveso, the belligerent Druid high priest and father of Norma was originally cast with Burak Bilgili but he withdrew from the production. Bass-baritone Craig Colclough, a graduate of the FGO’s Young Artist Program was announced as his replacement on January 7th and the talented singer, already garnering accolades worldwide, immersed himself seamlessly into the production, bringing the required anger and menace to the role. His low notes hit like Wagnerian rolling thunder; maybe an unconscious link there for the insertion aria?
Rounding out the cast were the FGO supernumeraries providing a magnificent chorus and floating with careful fluidity through the stage. The atrium of the Druid temple, high in the mountains, as the set designed by John Conklin and the Cincinnati Opera, is large and muscular, imposing in its rigidity of stone and worked out well for Nic Muni’s direction. Never was there a case of claustrophobia, even when the entire cast of Druid warriors, Roman soldiers and temple personnel were on. A perfect summation of the parts making this production work as flawlessly as it did.
Another integral aspect of the production was lighting designer Thomas Hase’s amazing work, creating tension and a neo-noir worthy of The Third Man’s harsh lighting and oblique angulation; had this production been lit differently, most scenes, if not all, would have suffered immensely in their visual tonality.
Finally, conductor Anthony Barrese, who did very well at the helm of Les pêcheurs de perles last season, did even better this time around with an orchestral pit that sounded great with an added bit of aplomb in its step, switching with mastery from fervent jingoism to floral mellifluousness, always in synch with the voices and never detracting from them.
As I stated in the preview, this production of Norma comes after a long dearth in the FGO’s seasonal schedule and it was well-worth the wait. Yes, it is a difficult opera to perform and not all who embody the role do great but in this circumstance, the entire production was assembled expertly and the end result was as flawless as it could get.
The real triumph is that Mlada Khudoley did not play the “known” Norma; she made the role her own and performed it with grace and self-assurance. Does she pass the litmus test? Yes. Victoriously so.
Norma continues at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, January 26 and Friday, January 29 and Saturday, January 30 at 8 p.m. and on Thursday, February 11 and Saturday, February 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. For information and tickets visit fgo.org.
All images compliments of Brittany Mazzurco-Muscato and the FGO.
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