Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Transcendent Evening

Last night I attended my first performance of the 2016-2017 COC season. It was a new production of Norma that featured Sondra Radvanovsky. Coming away I found myself thrilled to attend what was one of those once in a lifetime chances to see a performance that will be remembered. Radvanovsky has a beautiful, clear, powerful voice and the ability to emote and move in a manner that always stayed true to the role. It is refreshing to see someone who not only has an incredible voice perfect for the role who also feels and projects the character for the audience. 

I have written before how the experience of opera can be transcendent when all the elements come together. I spend a lot of time looking at the direction and the visual elements probably because I believe in some auteur-type theory of opera, but when you hear someone like Radvanovsky in a role like Norma all my normal misgivings fade into the background. Her voice last night made up for all the design and staging issues that normally leave me a little confused. 

The opera opened with Norma holding a flame in a darkened temple with a large section of tree floating in the air above her. The floating tree, the libretto's mistletoe rose and descended a couple of times in the first act never really adding to the overall feel of the piece. Behind Norma was a massive wooden door, the entrance to the Druid temple, that rose, lowered, opened and closed throughout the piece showcasing what for me was the best part of the set, a group of trees in the back that reflected the mood of the opera as it developed. The trees and the lighting used to suggest mood were for me the strongest dramatic element and I think they could have replaced the entire set, suggesting the sacred grove so often mentioned in the libretto. 

The Druid temple itself which was brooding and dark was defined by massive columns decorated with rows of weapons and a couple of bull's heads. The set remained the same for the entire performance with only a rolling scaffold that the chorus wheeled in and out and that served no other purpose than to allow Oroveso or Norma to ascend and sing and then descend back to the performance. Staging like this I find distracting. Staging, like sets, costumes and overall design can set mood and tone and help create drama. When staging distracts from the action it serves to draw attention away from the libretto creating a visual element that becomes the focus rather than the story that is being told. Another staging device I found distracting was some sort of greeting with fingers and hands that was repeated by the Druids that just seemed silly adding nothing to the overall feel of the piece. 

The costumes throughout were not really Druid or Roman inspired, but it was nice to see how they were coloured to define character. There were also tattoos on some of the Druid warriors but with a peculiar mix of costumes nothing really made sense. Norma, who was a blond (how many blond Druids were there?) wore light coloured robes, I guess to make her stand out from the rest of the performers. Adalgisa was all in green. The only costume I felt fitted the period nature of the piece was Oroveso who wore a black priest like robe that descended to the floor. 

I liked most of what I saw but found myself re-staging some of it in my mind. Put it down to being a frustrated amateur, but I would have liked to see it paired down. Jettison the temple, the up and down door and the scaffold and replace it with the beautifully minimalist grove of trees. The director created real magic with the trees and they, not the temple, the floating tree or the scaffold added beauty especially with the mood lighting and the falling snow. Instead the temple could have been suggested with a more primitive and minimalist stone altar and more primitive Druid-inspired costumes made of leather and natural fabrics. In my mind's eye I came away wishing Norma was styled more in the manner of Boudica and less like a Medieval Lady Macbeth. But in the face of Radvanovsky's voice these are mere quibbles.

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