Assembly and Community: Norma at the Teatro de la Maestranza

Bellini – Norma

Pollione – Sergio Escobar

Oroveso – Rubén Amoretti

Norma – Daniela Schillaci

Adalgisa – Sonia Ganassi

Clotilde – Mireia Pintó

Flavio – Vicenç Esteve Madrid

Coro de la Asociación de Amigos del Teatro de la Maestranza, Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla / Maurizio Benini

Stage director – Alberto Fassini

Teatro de la Maestranza, Seville.  Friday, February 6th, 2015.

This was the first of a series of three Normas being produced in theatres on the Iberian Peninsula over the next month or so.  The title role is one of the most challenging in the repertoire and represents the summit of the art of bel canto – the fact that theatres are able to cast the role from strength is certainly reason to rejoice.  The Norma tonight was to have been Angela Meade but Miss Meade, unfortunately suffering from acute laryngitis, withdrew from the production.  She was replaced by Daniela Schilalci, a singer new to me, but one who enjoys a flourishing career in her native Italy.

Photo: Guillermo Mendo
Photo: Guillermo Mendo

Tonight also marked my first visit to the Teatro de la Maestranza and it is a fine venue.  Located in the heart of Seville, moments from the famous Giralda, it was opened in 1991 and seats 1800.  The acoustic is warm and generous with good resonance and it is home to the Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla.  Sightlines from all areas of the theatre are decent although it might be worth avoiding the very sides of the auditorium.  Surtitles, projected above the stage, are offered in Castilian and English.  In addition to a series of symphonic concerts, the theatre offers four staged opera productions a year with interesting casting – later this season audiences can enjoy Doctor Atomic and Tosca.

Daniela Schillaci & Sonia Ganassi (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)
Daniela Schillaci & Sonia Ganassi (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)

Norma really is a work that offers nowhere to hide for the soprano singing the title role and any technical issues can become readily apparent.  It requires a singer not only with immaculate coloratura and beauty of tone but also one who can blend with her colleagues and who has the vocal strength for the final scene.  Schillaci’s is a brave interpretation and holds nothing back.  It isn’t the most elegant singing I have ever heard but she gave us a final scene of raw power.  Her ‘casta diva’ revealed a brassy soprano with a relative lack of variation of tonal colour and the lack of a genuine trill.  Phrasing was choppy and the florid writing aspirated.  Later, in her duets with Sonia Ganassi’s warmly-sung Adalgisa, tuning went awry and the intervals between the notes were not as cleanly-judged as they could have been.  The voice sits on the high side and it means that she opens up quite thrillingly at the top.  What I missed initially was a sense of being able to turn the notes and make them mean more than the dots on the page.  And yet, by the time she reached the final scene, she sang with great passion and dedication.  Her Norma was always honestly sung and her verbal acuity was always a pleasure to hear.  It was without doubt a decent stab at the role.

Sonia Ganassi & José Escobar (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)
Sonia Ganassi & José Escobar (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)

Sonia Ganassi gave us a full-bodied and generously-sung Adalgisa.  The tessitura held no terrors for her and the voice was even throughout the range.  The voice has power and agility where it matters yet never at any point sacrificed tonal beauty.  She also had the ability to make the notes on the page more than just dots and used them to portray Adalgisa’s dilemma fully.  She was also a sensitive partner to Schillaci in the duets.  Sergio Escobar is a new name to me and one I hope that we will be hearing more of.  His is a large and robust tenor with a ringing top and warm middle.  The voice has a bright penetrating quality with Latin warmth – imagine a hybrid of Domingo and Vickers.  He phrased his music with genuine feeling and musicality.  Again, there is perhaps a limited range of tone colours and the legato – while decent – isn’t quite as smooth as it could be.  Yet, he used the dynamics to really make something of this music and actually succeeded in making Pollione a much more sympathetic character than usual.  A notable talent.

Rubén Amoretti & Daniela Schillaci (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)
Rubén Amoretti & Daniela Schillaci (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)

Rubén Amoretti’s Oroveso was sung in a warm bass with a genuine sense of line and real presence in the ensembles.  Mireia Pintó’s Clotilde likewise revealed a fruity mezzo that made much of a character that so often becomes forgettable.  The chorus sang with wonderful discipline and unanimity of sound.  Prepared by Íñigo Sampil, ensemble was tight and the sections exceptionally well blended.  The Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla revealed a string section of warmth and weight.  Ensemble was tight even with some demanding tempi.  The off-stage band made up of players from Andalucía’s youth orchestra also distinguished itself with golden tone and unanimity of approach.  Indeed, the quality of the orchestra and chorus was high.

Ladies of the Coro de la Asociación de Amigos del Teatro de la Maestranza (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)
Ladies of the Coro de la Asociación de Amigos del Teatro de la Maestranza (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)

Maurizio Benini’s conducting was problematic. There were some excitingly swift passages in the overture but far too often he seemed to know only fast or tension-reducing slow.  Indeed, these were the same issues I found with his recent Royal Opera Rigoletto.  The final scene dragged interminably and throughout the show there seemed to be little emphasis on creating and maintaining theatrical tension.

Ensemble (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)
Ensemble (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)

I don’t know how old Alberto Fassini’s staging is but here, revived by Vittorio Borrelli, it looked positively ancient – not completely inappropriate for this work.  Indeed, the colours and the costumes reminded me of the 1960s Star Trek series.  The sets were large and craggy and certainly evoked a distant past and it could have worked with stronger direction of the singers.  Blocking of the chorus was rudimentary and far too often the principals were just parked at the front of the stage and barely looked at or engaged with each other.  With more imaginative Personenregie it could have been a theatrically gripping evening.

Ensemble (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)
Ensemble (Photo: Guillermo Mendo)

One of the biggest pleasures I have is discovering new singers and venues and it is true that the Maestranza certainly offers its audiences opera at a very high level and is a venue that deserves a place on any opera-lover’s plans.  In Sergio Escobar they have found a Pollione who has much to offer and a singer I hope we will hear more of.  The evening was also distinguished by Sonia Ganassi’s superb Adalgisa and I very much hope that we will get to hear her Eboli again soon.  If the evening didn’t quite completely come together in the way it could have it is undoubtedly a Norma that is worthy of the work.

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