The Art of Bel Canto: Norma at the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Bellini – Norma 

Pollione – Gregory Kunde

Oroveso – Raymond Aceto

Norma – Sondra Radvanovsky

Adalgisa – Yekaterina Gubanova

Clotilde – Ana Puche

Flavio – Francisco Vas

Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Orquestra simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Renato Palumbo

Stage director – Kevin Newbury

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona.  Sunday, February 8th, 2015.

This was something very special.  The word ‘historic’ is used perhaps a little too often but tonight there really is no other adjective to describe the sensational performances offered to us by Sondra Radvanovsky and Gregory Kunde.  They offered us singing that truly represented the summit of bel canto and cemented the Liceu’s reputation as one of the finest houses in the world.

Sondra Radvanovsky ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu
Sondra Radvanovsky ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu

The staging by Kevin Newbury is a co-production with San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto.  It’s inoffensive enough and while it doesn’t particularly offer any new insights into the piece it offers a fitting framework for the truly exceptional singing to take place in. There was one particular non sequitur – a platform housing the gong appeared in the first act before the gong was heard off stage.  Direction of the chorus was also rudimentary.  Perhaps we have been spoilt by the likes of Bieito who always manages to make his choruses into a group of individuals.  Here they were moved on and off with efficiency but there was little sense of them being either collective or individual personalities.  The impressive set (David Korins) seemed redolent of a ritual, unsophisticated past.  It was hard to place the time exactly but flowing dresses for the ladies and leather outfits for the gentlemen suggested timelessness.  Personenregie consisted of a fair bit of parking of the principals at the front of the stage but they certainly overcame that through completely gripping individual performances.  There were some arresting stage images.  During ‘mira o Norma’, the children, who were previously isolated at the back of the stage, ran towards Norma and Adalgisa.  This really did create a beautiful effect.  Likewise at the end, we see Norma mounting the funeral pyre – deeply impressive although I did fear for Norma’s flowing robes.  Above all it was an effective framework for the drama if not particularly innovative.

Sondra Radvanovsky ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu
Sondra Radvanovsky ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu

What really elevated tonight was the strength of individual performances.  Sondra Radvanovsky’s Norma really is the stuff of legends.  The voice with its characteristic fast vibrato has a richness that is highly endearing.  She truly has all of the bel canto skills at her disposal – a genuine trill, ravishingly perfectly sustained pianissimi, effortless portamenti, a milky-smooth legato and a voice that opens up thrillingly at the top.  Yes, she occasionally lands on the underside of the note but Radvanovsky sings with such individuality and authority that she completely convinces.  Her ‘casta diva’ was lovingly sung, phrased with the utmost beauty and caressed intimately.  Yet she also had the power for the final scene and added some absolutely thrilling acuti during the course of the evening.  This was true bel canto singing of the kind that I feel exceptionally privileged to have experienced in the theatre.

Gregory Kunde, Francisco Vas ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu
Gregory Kunde, Francisco Vas ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu

After his incomparable Otello and Don Alvaro in València, tonight Gregory Kunde offered us singing that was truly extraordinary in its virtuosity and stylistic awareness.  The voice has wonderful cutting power and carries so easily into the auditorium.  He relishes the language like a native speaker and there is a genuine Italianate warmth to the tone.  What really distinguished his performance was the awe-inspiring ornamentation in his Act 1 set piece ‘meco all’altar di Venere’.  His legato was also incredibly smooth and he used ornamentation to absolutely stunning effect.  This was bel canto singing worthy of the very greatest and it was absolutely showstopping.  Kunde brought a lifetime of experience to his singing of the role and yet the voice sounds absolutely fresh and apparently without limits.  A truly remarkable artist.

Sondra Radvanovsky, Yekaterina Gubanova ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu
Sondra Radvanovsky, Yekaterina Gubanova ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu

In this exalted company Yekaterina Gubanova’s Adalgisa sounded somewhat anonymous.  The voice has richness yet the role seems a little on the high side for her with the higher reaches betraying a widening of vibrato.  She blended quite wonderfully with Radvanovsky in the duets however.  Raymond Aceto’s Oroveso gave us a rich and resonant bass that really made the most out of every opportunity.  The voice has wonderful depth and carries quite wonderfully through the theatre.  Ana Puche’s Clotilde and Francisco Vas’ Flavio were more than decent.

Sondra Radvanovsky, Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu
Sondra Radvanovsky, Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu

The chorus, particularly the men, was of a very high level.  Blend could have been slightly stronger – a couple of voices were sticking out on occasion.  The orchestra played well for Renato Palumbo.  Intonation in the lower strings was sour at times but he obtained playing of great richness from the violins.  They coped admirably with some very swift tempi and Palumbo clearly has the measure of the work’s architecture.  It’s clear that it’s a piece that he knows and loves very much and he paces it well.  The only place where I felt things could have been tightened up was in some recitatives that were taken at far too deliberate a pace.

Sondra Radvanovsky ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu
Sondra Radvanovsky ©Toni Bofill/Gran Teatre del Liceu

I imagine that tonight might have been quite a daunting night for Radvanovsky to debut her Norma in the theatre so closely associated with one of the legendary past exponents of the role.  Yet she gave us a truly great performance worthy of being considered among the very finest interpretations of this momentous role.  That she and her Pollione were the epitome of bel canto style is truly a reason for celebration.  This was an unforgettable evening at the Liceu, one that those who were present will remember for a very long time.


  1. Since I heard Radvan in Tim Albery’s AIDA, it’s my favourite Aida of all, live or recorded. On the other hand, Radvan as Elisabetta in ROBERTO DEVEREUX left me cold–it could be that the music was a snooze. I do agree with you that NORMA is the best of bel canto, though–and hope we get to hear her in this production here.

  2. I think the same. Great cast. This Norma is one of the best operas that I have seen live.

  3. Sondra Radvanovsky is, in my opinion, the finest female singer on earth today. We are blessed, and the world should make its way to see and hear her.
    There is no finer Norma, in an all around sense, to be heard on record, though Callas and two others come close.

  4. I was fortunate enough to be in the San Francisco Opera performances of this production of “Norma” in the fall of 2014. Amazing experience!

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