Casta Diva: Norma at the Palau de les Arts

Bellini – Norma

Pollione – Russell Thomas

Oroveso – Serguei Artamonov

Norma – Mariella Devia

Adalgisa – Varduhi Abrahamyan

Clotilde – Cristina Alunno

Flavio – David Fruci

Ballet de la Generalitat, Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana /  Gustavo Gimeno

Stage director – Davide Livermore

Palau de les Arts, València.  Saturday, March 21st, 2015.

This was the third Norma that I have seen in the Iberian Peninsula over the last month following one each in Seville and Barcelona.  I try to catch at least one show per season at the Palau de les Arts.  It’s a fine venue with one of the best orchestras and choruses around.  Tonight we had opera at an exceptionally high standard with a cast that had clearly been hand-picked with care.

Stage director Davide Livermore is now the Intendant and Artistic Director of the house having taken over from the founding Intendant, Helga Schmidt.  This Norma is a co-production with Bilbao and Madrid and in many ways shows great originality.  The use of video projections was particularly striking, used to illustrate relationships between characters and display imagery such as trees and flames.  This never distracted from the performers nor did it dominate the stage in a negative way.  They were clearly used with intelligence and vision.  One particularly striking example was as Norma struck the gong towards the end of act 2, a gong appeared in the video projections at the front of the stage.  Yet at the same time the Personenregie was perfunctory with far too much parking of the principals at the front of the stage.  Having seen three Normas in quick succession, this production is certainly not unique in that respect.  I longed to see characters look at and engage each other while they sang.  The direction of the chorus, while efficient, also seemed to be more focused on getting them on and off quickly rather than actually creating a mass of people who all had an individual personality.  In a way it felt somewhat unfinished as a production – much to admire in the set and video design but lacking originality in the Personenregie.

Photo: Tato Baeza
Photo: Tato Baeza

The singing was absolutely superb.  The big surprise for me was Armenian mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Adalgisa.   I had previously encountered Abrahamyan as a fine baroque singer with a rich toned mezzo.  Tonight she gave us sensational singing that was the epitome of bel canto style.  A milky smooth legato, complete ease with the florid writing and a voice of velvety plushness that filled the auditorium.  There will be some who bemoan the fact that she didn’t go for the high Cs but instead she made the music her own through an implicit understanding of the style and intelligent ornamentation.  The voice was absolutely completely even throughout the range, the registers all completely integrated.  She blended wonderfully with Mariella Devia’s Norma and Russell Thomas’ Pollione.

Devia is a legend.  It is incredible to think that she is now 67 as the top of the voice sounds like that of someone twenty years younger, no beat or wobble and laser-sharp high notes.  Her soprano is on the lighter side and she is perhaps not one of nature’s Normas.  The more declamatory writing seems to be less comfortable for her but what she does bring is a lifetime of experience in this music and an ability to make it work for her.  The voice took a little time to warm up – ‘casta diva’ wasn’t quite settled and yet by the time she reached the final scene she sang like a woman possessed.  The top of the voice effortlessly produced and that implicit understanding of text and music that cannot be taught.  She gave us singing of such easy lyricism, the lines seemingly endless.  A truly remarkable artist.

It is always a pleasure to hear Russell Thomas’ instinctive musicianship and warm and masculine voice.  The tone has real richness and sheen and the range of the part held absolutely no terrors for him.  His Pollione was beautifully phrased with heroic strength where required yet real delicacy where it mattered.  His ‘vieni in Roma’ duet with Adalgisa was absolutely captivating, sung in a honeyed mezza voce and beautifully phrased.  The only thing I would have liked more of was ornamentation in his big act 1 set piece.  What Thomas did was make a Pollione into a real flesh and blood character rather than the cartoon villain he can sometimes come across as.  It was easy to believe that both Adalgisa and Norma would fall for him.

Photo: Tato Baeza
Photo: Tato Baeza

The remainder of the cast was at a very high level – Serguei Artamonov’s Oroveso sung in a rich and resonant bass and Cristina Alunno and David Fruci, members of the Palau’s young artists program, were secure and confident in the smaller roles.  The true jewel of the house is their outstanding chorus and tonight again they did not disappoint.  What always strikes me with them is the total blend between the sections – so many opera choruses sound like a war of vibratos competing with each other.  Here we get a massive sound – especially noticeable in the ‘guerra, guerra’ section – combined with real beauty of tone.  The tenors of the chorus stood out in particular with the beauty of tone in the higher reaches.  They are phenomenal and worth a trip to València alone.

Likewise the superb house orchestra also made a mark.  The sections all absolutely secure, the intonation in the strings spot on.  Gustavo Gimeno led a lively and exciting reading.  Tempi were swift and springy and the evening flew by.  There were a couple of very small patches where coordination wasn’t quite unanimous but Gimeno clearly understands how the music should go and there was a lyricism to his conducting that was an ideal match to the work.  This was a very auspicious debut and Gimeno is clearly a conductor to watch.  He doesn’t as yet have much operatic experience but I trust that this is going to change soon.

Photo: Tato Baeza
Photo: Tato Baeza

Seeing three different performances of the same work within a month inevitably leads to mental comparisons.  Certainly the València performance offered a visually stimulating staging with superb singing from all three leads.  Combined with exceptional orchestral playing and choral singing, and well-paced conducting that was alive with nuance, this was an outstanding evening.

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