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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.