In another typical boring Monday night in New York City the elite of New York gather at the Metropolitan Opera House to be dazzled, and wowed for the opening night premiere of “Norma.” This evening ushered in the exciting season of the Opera with the 157th Met performance of Bellini’s “Norma.” I never heard of Norma and was unsure as to what to expect but after attending this event for years tonight was the most spectacular. The breathtaking performances of Sopranos Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato elevated the evening to an otherworldly level with these two mesmerizing singers astounding the attendees with hours of melodious notes that had me in tears. Normally there is one superstar who regals the audience with her talent but tonight there were at least two with tenor Joseph Calleja also giving a magnificent performance.
This was opera at its finest and the illustrious crowd was in love. There were plenty of philanthropists on hand to experience this extravaganza including: Ann Ziff (donating $50 Million), Veronica Atkins, Sana Sabbagh, John Paulson, Jean and Martin Shafiroff, and many others. The night which usually attracts hordes of celebrities fell a bit short with thespians Jemima Kirke, Jill Hennessy, Jennifer Esposito, Erin Richards, Jesse Ferguson, Josh Lucas and Paul Sorvino being a couple of the luminaries gracing the event. The evening began with the national anthem which everyone stood up for; General Manager Peter Gelb later joked that you couldn’t tell if the singers were on their knees since the curtains were down. At approximately 6:40 PM the opera began and for the next three and a half hours we were treated to the Opera Olympics. Bellini’s opera has long been underappreciated by the masses who complain that his operas are banal. However, as time has passed his works have received accolades for their superbly lyrical and long-breathed melodies. Singing his arias are considered an artistic Mount Everest and he has been admired by some of the greats including Wagner.
Norma is the hardest part for any soprano with its wide range of emotions and incredible technical range required for the main character. It revolves around a classic love triangle where the title character, a druidic high priestess, is engaged in an illicit relationship with the enemy Pollione but he abandons her and is seduced by Norma’s younger colleague Adalgisa. With no way out Norma sacrifices herself and moves Pollione to do the same in the riveting finale where both die in typical opera fashion-usually one protagonist dies.
The soprano/mezzo Act II duet “Mira, o Norma” was sensational with the blending and contrasting voices of superstars Radvanovsky and DiDonato complementing each other and leaving a haunting imprint on the audience with their confrontational beginning culminating in a lugubrious unification. This opera was all about the women regardless of whether both were in love with the same man and it showcased the female voice in all its glory. The climax of the opera occurs when Norma reveals to her people that she has violated her vows. At this critical moment Bellini strips away the orchestra leaving Norma’s voice as bare as her character. Bellini continually exposes the inner life of his characters even if it means jettisoning the typical operatic forms and gives us a peek into the emotions of his character.
There were only two sets used through the duration of the opera, although set designer Robert Jones told me he had prepared for this for four years, and the costumes were drab with brown and green schmattas adorning the singers. This night was all about the voices and nothing was going to detract. The performance which ended at 10:00 PM was greeted with ovation after ovation a rare occurrence at any performance. This audience knows their opera and if they stand they mean it. As guests headed to the outdoor tents for dinner with tickets beginning at $1,500 and climbing upwards of $10,000 Ann Ziff made the announcement that more than $4.9 million was raised.
Bill de Blasio also showed up, revealing that he could not make it to the opera since he had other obligations but as an Italian could remember his grandfather whistling arias. He praised the opera and its attendees commenting that most people today have the attention span of a Twitter message. De Blasio said he was hoping Amazon would station their headquarters in New York remarking that what makes New York so unique is its cultural life including Lincoln Center. Peter Gelb echoed this sentiment by thanking Sir David McVicar for his incredible direction and Carlo Rizzi who was a phenomenal conductor.
As midnight struck I spotted the magnificent Radvanovsky who said she has sung Norma more than 80 times and prepares for this role by singing every day and doing physical exercise. When I asked if she was nervous she replied, “yesterday I was but tonight a calm set over me and I couldn’t figure out why until I realized it was my dad’s birthday. I could feel him watching over me in heaven and that informed my performance.” A miraculous conclusion to an evening whose performances must have involved divine providence.
By: Lieba Nesis
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