José Luis Moscovich
by Vincenzo Bellini
Libretto by Felice Romani
based on the play Norma, ou L’infanticide by Alexandre Soumet
Sung in Italian with English titles
World Premiere: December 26, 1831 - Teatro alla Scala - Milan
West Bay Opera Premiere: February 7, 1992
Friday, Oct 13, 2017 - 8:00 p.m
Sunday, Oct 15, 2017 - 2:00 p.m
Saturday, Oct 21, 2017 - 8:00 p.m
Sunday, Oct 22, 2017 - 2:00 p.m
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, California
(highlights of the opera) with piano
Thursday, Oct 5, 2017 - 8:00 p.m
Palo Alto Art Center
1313 Newell Rd.
Palo Alto, California 94303
Norma, a Druid priestess, hides an astounding secret: her affair with Pollione, the Roman pro-consul in Gaul, and the two children she has borne him. Her world collapses when she finds out that he is now in love with Adalgisa, a younger priestess at Irminsul's temple. A tragic story of forbidden love, betrayal and sacrifice, Norma is Bellini's best known work, and it provides a rare onstage glance at Pagan and Wicca rituals.
Norma, the Druid High Priestess
Pollione, Roman Pro-Consul in Gaul
Adalgisa, a Druid priestess
Oroveso, Leader of the Druids,
Flavio, Friend of Pollione's
Clotilde, Norma's confidant
Hiroki Amada, Mark Baushke, Joanne Bogart, Rick Bogart, Steve Boisvert, Geordie Burdick, JoAnn Close, Sophia Gever, Inna Gitman, Michael Good, John Graham, Terry Hayes, Katherine Naegele, Mark Nelson, Joanne Newman, Erwin Oertli, Cheryl Passanisi, Maria Polyakova, Victoria Sadow, Philip Schwarz, David Simon, Michelle Skylar, Miles Spielberg, Jennisara Sumiri, Christian Voitenleitner, Diane Yeramian
Orchestral reduction: Pocket Publications
Josepha Fath, Andrew Lan
Judy Kmetko/Robin Hansen, Frida Pukhachevsky, Hazel Keelan
Rachel McGuire, Alessandra Aquilanti
Evan Kahn, Hans Hoffer
Marie Laskin/Christy Crews,
Leslie Chin, Mary Hargrove
Peter Lemberg/Liam Boisset
Art Austin, Sue Macy
Susan Vollmer, Leslie Hart
Rick Leder, Chris Wilhite
makes his West Bay Opera debut singing Pollione in Norma. In recent seasons he has performed the roles of Alfredo (La traviata), Ismaele (Nabucco), Turiddu (Cavalleria rusticana), Rodolfo (La bohème), Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor), Riccardo (Un ballo in maschera), Cavaradossi (Tosca), Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly), Canio (Pagliacci), Don Jose (Carmen), Des Grieux (Manon Lescaut), Radames (Aida), Andrea Chénier (Andrea Chénier), and Calaf (Turandot), in venues around the globe, including Theater Erfurt (Germany), Antipolis Théâtre d’Antibes (France), Teatro Dell’Orca Caltagirone (Italy), Teatro Eschilo Gela (Italy), Amphitheater of the Palazzolo Acreide Siracusa (Italy) and Sydney Lyric Opera (Australia). He studied in Italy and the United States under the tutelage of Gioacchino Li Vigni, Nicola Martinucci, and Salvatore Fisichella, and in 2013 and 2016 was awarded fellowships from the Mediterranean Opera Studio (Italy) for intensive study with opera luminaries Marcello Giordani, Pietro Ballo, Mariella Devia, Jennifer Larmore, and Giuseppe Filianoti.
sings the role of Adalgisa in Norma. In September, She made her WBO company debut as Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro) and returned as Frugola in Il tabarro, and La Zelatrice in Suor Angelica and as the Page in R.Strauss' Salome. Other recent engagements include Dorabella (Cosi fan tutte) with Peoria Symphony, Mujer 2 in Frederico Ibarra’s Despertar al sueño, a co-production of West Bay Opera and Escenia Ensamble of Mexico, with performances at the Teatro Degollado in Guadalajara and San Francisco. This summer, Ms. Jensen made her West Edge Opera debut as Justine in Libby Larsen’s Frankenstein and sang the title role from PQ Phan’s The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh with VASCAM in Orange County which she will reprise this spring. Ms. Jensen also made her debut with Cambrian Symphony, singing pieces from Mahler and Mozart and returned this September to sing highlights from Carmen. Ms. Jensen was also engaged by Des Moines Opera and was seen as Octavian, Orfeo and Mercedes in the Young Artist scenes productions. A graduate of Indiana University (MM) and Western Washington University (BM), Ms. Jensen performed Isabella in Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri, the title role in Massenet’s Cendrillon, Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Edith in The Pirates of Penzance. Concert performances include Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Bach's Magnificat, Mozart's Requiem, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade. Ms. Jensen was a 2017 recipient of the Encouragement Award and Audience choice at the Metropolitan Opera Iowa District competition.
Isaiah Musik-Ayala, bass-baritone
returns to West Bay Opera to sing the role of Oroveso in Norma. He made his West Bay Opera debut as Surin in Pikovaya Dama and was most recently seen as Jochanaan in Salome. Earlier in the 2016-17 Season, he sang the title role in Le nozze di Figaro. He has also appeared with the company as Ramfis in Aida and Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor. He sang the role of Elmiro in Rossini’s Otello with Loft Opera in NYC this March, after performing in a new production of Silent Night with Opera San Jose. This season he also sang the Bonze in Madama Butterfly with the North Shore Music Festival. He sang Figaro as a Professional Fellow with the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival this past summer, and sang Banquo (cover) and the Doctor in the Opera Company of Middlebury’s production of Macbeth. Mr. Musik-Ayala recently covered Il Re in Aida, Barbarossa in La battaglia di Legnano, and Colline in La bohème, all with Sarasota Opera, singing another Banquo (cover) and Doctor in Chautauqua Opera’s Macbeth, as well as Prince Gremin (cover) and Zaretzky in that company's production of Eugene Onegin. Other recent engagements include Basilio in On Site Opera’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (Paisiello), Gazella in Loft Opera’s Lucrezia Borgia, and performing with the Caramoor Music Festival. An alumnus of Irene Dalis’ Resident Ensemble at Opera San Jose, his many roles with the company include his first Figaro, Don Magnifico (La cenerentola, Count Des Grieux (Manon), Don Basilio (The Barber of Seville), his first Colline, and Alexei Karenin in the West Coast Premiere of Anna Karenina. Other performance highlights include Escamillo (Carmen), Simone (Gianni Schicchi), Frank (Die Fledermaus), Pistola (Falstaff), Don Alfonso (Così fan tutte), Baron Douphol (La traviata), and the Commendatore (Don Giovanni). Isaiah is a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with the late Richard Miller.
Katia Hayati, soprano
returns to West Bay Opera to sing the role of Clotilde in Norma. She made her WBO company deubt singing Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor. With Just Opera she recently sang the role of Magda Sorel (The Consul). Favorite past roles include Augusta Tabor (The Ballad of Baby Doe) with Stanford Light Opera, Sempronio (Haydn's Lo speziale) with Bay Area Opera Collaborative, Mother (Hansel and Gretel) with Bayshore Lyric Opera, and Grimgerde (Die Walküre) with Valhalla Productions.
José Luis Moscovich
is the Stage Director for Norma. Mr. Vieira, a baritone, started his singing career at age 17 as Dancaïre in Carmen. He has sung the title roles in Don Giovanni and Rigoletto, and appeared also as Pelleas, Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Ford in Falstaff, Tonio in Pagliacci, Germont in La traviata, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, and he most recently sang the title role in Le nozze di Figaro, marking his debut at the Teatro Solís in Montevideo, Uruguay. Mr. Vieira as sung 96 different operatic roles with such companies as San Francisco Opera; Theatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sacramento Opera; Williamsburg Opera; Opera Santa Barbara; Fresno Grand Opera; Teatro Barakaldo, Spain; and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, to name a few; and he has appeared at the Opera Festivals of Manaus, Brazil; Mendocino; Festival del Sole, and Bratislava, Slovakia. As a concert and oratorio artist, he has performed with the National Symphonies of Colombia (Orff’s Carmina Burana), Brazil (Carmina Burana, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) and Uruguay (Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem), as well as the Prague Philharmonic (Dvorak’s Requiem) and the Orchestre de Provence in France (Faure’s Requiem). Mr. Vieira's stage director credits include Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Tacoma Opera,) Verdi’s Il trovatore (West Bay Opera,) Rossini’s La cenerentola (Pocket Opera,) and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (West Bay Opera), among others.
is the set designer and projections co-designer for Norma. He has designed for West Bay Opera since 1995. From 1993 to 2013, he was West Bay Opera’s Technical Director. Mr. Revon has designed over 350 sets since 1989. This summer he designed three productions for West Edge Opera for performances at the Pacific Pipe factory in Oakland. His world premieres include Machine for The Crucible Productions, Tawawa House for Townsend Opera and The Tale of the Nutcracker for Opera San Jose. For Opera Santa Barbara, he designed Tosca, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi, The Italian Girl in Algiers, Così fan tutte, Lucia di Lammermoor, La bohème, Madama Butterfly and Orphée et Eurydice. Other designs include La bohème for the Music Academy of the West, The Girl of the Golden West and The Elixir of Love for Rimrock Opera in Montana. For West Bay Opera, he designed La bohème, Don Giovanni as well as over forty other operas. Mr. Revon teaches at the Oakland School for the Arts. He started his design career in Paris, where he received a degree in scenic design from the École Supérieur des Arts et Techniques.
is the costume designer for Norma. She has been designing costumes for over twenty-five years. She was designer for West Bay Opera's productions of Dido and Aeneas, La vida breve, Samson et Dalila, Aida, Les contes d'Hoffmann, Die Zauberflöte, Faust, Rigoletto, Le nozze di Figaro and Salome. Other collaborations includes SF Playhouse, Marin Shakespeare Company, Company C Contemporary Ballet, Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Berkeley Playhouse, Berkeley Opera, Brava Theatre, Pocket Opera, Lamplighters Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, Alameda Civic Light Opera, Palo Alto Players, The De Young Museum, The Museum of Performance and Design, Hillbarn Theatre, Arclight Theatre, Contra Costa Musical Theatre, Ballet Califia, Cinnabar Theatre, and Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, among others. Abra has an MFA from UCLA in theatrical costume design.
is the Lighting Designer for Norma. He has been doing lighting design for eight years and has designed over 40 shows. Most recently, he assisted lighting designer Steve Mannshardt in West Bay Opera's production of Yevgeny Onegin. Later this month you can see more of his lighting work at Notre Dame de Namur University, Peninsula Youth Theater and Great America. Sean graduated from Foothill College last June. He'd like to thank all of his teachers, mentors, peers and co-workers.
is Projection Designer for Norma. He made his debut with West Bay Opera as Projection Designer for Les contes d’Hoffmann, and since then has designed projections for Tosca, L’elixir d'amore, Die Zauberflöte, Il trovatore, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Faust, Rigoletto, Yevgeny Onegin, Madama Butterfly, Le nozze di Figaro, Il trittico and Salome. Frederic's design work is at the intersection of art and technology, and he loves pushing the boundaries of what can be done on stage using new technology. His upcoming engagements as Projection Designer include A Golden Celebration of Dance at the Chicago Auditorium; a new production of Alice in Wonderland with Mark Foehringer Dance Project|SF in San Francisco and the Youth America Grand Prix at the David Koch Theatre in New York City. A native of France, he is a member of United Scenic Artists and holds both a Masters of Arts in Theatre Design & Production and an Executive MBA. Frédéric is of the Owner and Founder of Oaktown Productions and the Managing Director for Rooster Productions. None of this would be possible without the love and support of his amazing wife Magda and his two young boys Étienne & Théodore.
is Sound Designer for Norma. Giselle grew up in Mountain View and earned a BA in Technical Theatre from Cal State Long Beach. Following a string of SoCal gigs at various convention centers, theatres, and clubs on the Sunset Strip, Giselle returned to the SF Bay. After doing work with Western Ballet she spent time at West Bay Opera under the mentorship of Tod Nixon and JF Revon and went on to secure a position at Beach Blanket Babylon. She stepped in as Sound Designer last season and has designed West Bay Opera's productions of Le nozze di Figaro, Il trittico and Salome.
is Makeup and Wig Designer for Norma. She made her debut as makeup and wig designer with the company in Madama Butterfly, and has since designed Yevgeny Onegin, Le nozze di Figaro, Il trittico and Salome. She has also designed recently for Festival Opera. Ms. Cross is an accomplished actress, dancer, singer, choreographer, director and teacher. Her professional performing arts career spans over three decades and includes film, video, commercials, stage, dance, voice, and magic. She designs costumes, make up, and hair for stage, film and opera. She recently directed, designed and choreographed Zombeo and Juliet, The Musical, which was produced at Burlingame High School. She has successfully blended her performance experience with a 30-year career in teaching drama, dance, movement and art at Odyssey Middle School.
is Properties Designer for Norma. Both she and her props were last seen in Lyrics production of Trial by Jury in June, 2017. She will also be working on Oklahoma with Lyric theatre this fall. Other credits with West Bay Opera include Salome, Il trittico, Le nozze di Figaro, Madama Butterfly, Yevgeny Onegin, Rigoletto, Faust, Il trovatore, Die Zauberflöte, L’elisir d’amore, Tosca, Otello, Lucia di Lammermoor, Les contes d'Hoffmann, Aida, Don Giovanni, Samson et Dalila, Dido and Aeneas, La Vida Breve and Turandot. She has sung in the chorus with Mission City Opera, where she has also been properties manager for seven shows, including The Marriage of Figaro in 2009 and La bohème in 2010. She designed properties for many of Lyric Theatre of San Jose’s productions, including Camelot, Carousel, Kismet, Brigadoon, a Bollywood-style Sorcerer, and The Grand Duke. She also designed Utopia Limited for Lyric Theatre. Ms. Benson has been singing and designing and building props for various community theaters and Bahá'í choirs since the age of 12.
Photos: Otak Jump
WEST BAY OPERA STAFF
Technical Director: David Gardner
Arts Administrator: Christopher Cha
Assistant Costume Shop Supervisor: Merna Black
Orchestra Manager: Christy Crews
Orchestra Librarian: Virginia Smedberg
NORMA PRODUCTION STAFF
Stage Manager: Fernanda Carvalho
Assistant Stage Manager: Judy Bogart
Rehearsal Pianists: Tamami Honma, Bruce Olstad, Jonathan Erman, Paul Dab
Italian Supertitles Translation: José Luis Moscovich
Italian Diction Coach: Leopoldina Viggiano
Supertitles Operator: Bruce Olstad
Master Electrician: Sean Kramer, Selina Young
Lighting Board Operator: Deborah Bennet
Scenic Projections Operator: Judy Bogart
Properties Manager: Franklin Harris
Crew Chief: Rudy Schroeter
Wardrobe Supervisor: Cynthia Preciado
Scenic Artist: Serina Serjama
Set Construction: David Gardner, Charlie Miller, Jereme Masic
Costume Design Assistant: Cynthia Preciado
Costume Construction: Cindy Preciado, Carrie Banda
Dressers: Karen Sanders, David Cox
Photographer: Otak Jump
Sound Board Operator: Skyler Vickroy
Sound Technician: Kevin Scholl
Pit Manager: Kevin Scholl
Video Engineer: Samuel Arnold
Lighting Crew: Jonathan Wright, Brian Hornor, Harriet K. Arguello-Bank, Keith Davis II, Henry Whittaker, Lee Richard, Fernanda Carvalho, Salina, Nick.
Stage Crew: Grady Sanders, Karen Sanders, Franklin Harris, Joshua Cha
Make-up Artists: Lisa Cross, Marisa Bonahoom, Amy Worden,
Stephen Boisvert, Liz Curry
Load-in volunteers: Mark Baushke, Stephen Boisvert
House Manager Coordinator: Barbara Evangelista
Volunteer Coordinator: Pat Markevitch
Opera Preview Coordinator: Balbina Heitner
Champagne Masters: Melisa Orozco, Balbina Heitner, José Luis Bonilla, Susanna
Champagne Reception Coordinator: Andrea Smith
OPERA IN THE SCHOOLS PROGRAM (OITS)
Program Director: Michael Taylor
Program Coordinator: Balbina Heitner
Challenging love among the Druids
Soprano Christina Major sings the title role in Bellini’s “Norma.”
Singing the title role in Bellini’s “Norma” is not for the faint of heart. The lovestruck Druid priestess is one of the most difficult assignments in the standard operatic repertoire, calling for a daunting blend of tonal beauty, expressive transparency, physical stamina and technical precision.
Christina Major is clearly not one to shy away from a challenge. The soprano, a gifted alum of the resident company at Opera San Jose, takes the lead in this weekend’s production at West Bay Opera, conducted by General Director José Luis Moscovich and directed by Igor Vieira.
West Bay Opera’s Norma Emerges from Challenges — on Stage and Off
September 26, 201
Bellini’s Norma is considered the ultimate test in all of opera for a dramatic coloratura soprano, a notion recently explored in The New York Times. In one of his classic reviews, Martin Bernheimer summarized why the Druid priestess’s secret love life is fodder for singers’ nightmares:
“An appropriate interpreter of this nearly impossible role must be a bel-canto enchantress with a voice that suggests velvet one moment, steel the next. She ought to command an extraordinarily wide dynamic range, a vast spectrum of vocal light and shade, uncommon flexibility and a flamboyant temperament.”
A daunting, even scary prospect for most singers, but not for Christina Major, who will make her role debut as Norma in West Bay Opera’s upcoming production. Why is she so sanguine?
As Major told SFCV:
Life has certainly taken me on a route I hadn’t expected, but to sing this role, you must have lived and experienced life from all angles — love, confusion, motherhood, secrecy — different faces for different situations: anger, betrayal, forgiveness, and purification through fire. The vocal demands are as difficult as her life painted in the score.
“With the arrival our first child four months early and then eight months in the neonatal intensive care unit, I was forced to take a hiatus from the opera stage until we were both well. Eden is now 2 years old and a fireball. Watching her fight and come to life through all of that, it was clear I had to do the same. So why not the Everest of the soprano repertoire?
Major feels profound gratitude to “the village it takes,” which includes her husband Greg, her family in Fort Worth, Texas, and to what she calls her “team” in New York City — her agent Peter Randsman and voice teacher Andrea DelGiudice. “And José Luis Moscovich for bringing me back to the stage!”
Life has brought challenges beyond those of the stage for Moscovich too. The indomitable general director of West Bay Opera has been dividing his time between the demands of several major surgeries on his neck and spine, and leading the company, which requires conducting for hours at a time. “I powered through Salome, but by early August I had to have emergency surgery,” he says, “and now I am going forward with Norma. We’ll see how it feels when we get into the heat of things.”
Beyond dealing with serious medical problems, Moscovich’s focus has been on “assembling a dream cast for Norma.” Of Major, he says, “the evolution of her voice and her craft are nothing short of miraculous. I truly believe this will put her on the map as a major Norma. Her voice has the heft, the coloratura, and the ability to float that are indispensable for the role.”
Australian tenor Ben Sloman, is cast as Pollione, the Roman proconsul in Gaul, Norma’s faithless lover. Moscovich says Sloman “has been making waves on the East Coast and has a voice that at times reminds me of Vickers.”
Adalgisa is Veronica Jensen, WBO’s Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Frugola in Il tabarro, the Page in Salome. Isaiah Musik-Ayala, Jochanaan in Salome, will sing Oroveso. Igor Vieira is directing.
“We’ll be doing an original period production,” Moscovich says, “but emphasizing the pagan and Wiccan aspects of the story. This will be evident in the costumes, and there will also be tattoos, which were very much a part of the culture.”
West Bay Opera stages strong “Norma”
Singing outside the curve…
Great singing and supple direction fought against an over-the-top plot last night at the Lucie Stern Theater, where José Luis Moscovich led the West Bay Opera in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.
“How many of you are seeing an opera for the first time?” asked General Director Moscovich of the audience before stepping into the pit. “Well, it will hook you!” And that is often the case, with the high level of WBO’s performances squeezed into such an intimate hall. Like the smaller halls of Europe, this is where vocal and instrumental nuances can immerse one in an experience, and where the outsized emotions of opera can turn hair-curling.
Bellini’s choice of the libretto for Norma, however, would have been sensationalistic even for his era, testing the believability of any sane audience. Druid High Priestess falls for two-timing Roman Proconsul? Seriously? But it works! Part of the charm of opera is that unbelievable premises can open up our inner child’s capacity for make-believe, and those believable Druid worshippers and starkly elemental sets by Jean-Francois Revon quickly pried open our callused outlooks and everyday disbeliefs. Minds properly pried, we were then treated to a gritty look at some queasy emotional truths, including the wish that we could murder our children (which doesn’t happen) and a toxic love triangle. The casual human sacrifice didn’t hurt, either.
Moving the action along were a spirited orchestra, with particularly fine winds and stern horns, and the fluid and inventive stage directing of Igor Vieira.
The four poles of this plot and opera were stellar. Pollione was the Roman warrior tasked with befriending the Gauls while stamping out their religious practices and Druid priests. Benjamin Sloman sang that morally complicated part with a voice of smooth dexterity, a tenor that was big and buttery in every part of his range. And that smooth delivery made him believable as he championed the powers of “fate” and “love” while trying to trade in his baby mama for a sweeter young thing.
The object of his mid-life crisis was the Druid Priestess Adalgisa, sung by Veronica Jensen in a mezzo voice that resonated with thick colors and powerful yearnings. “Empty is the sacred wood,” she sang, and filled that wood with dark and tantalizing energy.
Bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala was a natural force as Oroveso, the leader of the Druids. His out-sized voice and earthen poise initiated us into ancient rites of blood and oak, and I quickly recalled his chilling triumph as John the Baptist in WBO’s recent Salome, in which he hurled mad prophecies from underground.
And headlining the cast was Christina Major as Norma, the Druid High Priestess. This is a taxing role, with long bel canto arias stretching over a huge vocal range from lyric to dramatic and nearly to coloratura soprano, and Major was exceptional in all parts. Her lows were growled and meaty and her high notes shimmered. Most moving was her rendition of the famed aria, “Casta Diva,” (Chaste Goddess, who bathes these ancient hallowed trees in silver light…). Shadowed by flute and simple string arpeggios, here we were treated to her lush low-lights and high notes that whispered into evanescence, a still life of hopes and dreams.
Equal to the vocal demands were emotional ones. When Norma learns of Pollione’s betrayal of her heart and of her trust she goes through a cycle of loss and rage and even approaches madness when she takes the holy knife and… but no spoilers here. And then she finds room for forgiveness and supreme sacrifice. Suffice it to say that I’m sure some of the “newbies” in this audience were hooked and will be back for more.
Bellini was an artist of melody, but he died before his own sense of harmony – or propriety – could mature. His short life (he died at 34) had its own drama and ambiguity, and one might wonder if the treacherous seas of love were more than just a plot.
To hear his “voice,” see this production!
Norma will be at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theater on Sunday, Oct. 15 at 2:00 p.m., the following Saturday, Oct. 21 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 22 at 2:00 p.m. Call 650-424-9999 for box office or go to westbayopera.org. for information and tickets.
Passionate Music and Druidic Barbarity Emerges in West Bay Opera’s Norma
BY NICHOLAS JONES , October 17, 2017 WEST BAY OPERA
Classic opera at a reasonable cost, with excellent leads and a strong orchestra, presented in a reasonably sized hall, nestled among a lovely grove of oak trees — who could ask for anything more?
The oak grove at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theater was an appropriate locale for West Bay Opera’s fall production of Bellini’s Norma, whose forceful heroine guards the sacred oaks (and dependent mistletoe) of druidic Gaul. The production, continuing this weekend, presents Bellini’s lyrical music with the fiery emotion and steely control that it demands.
If all Gaul is divided in three parts, as Caesar wrote, so too are its high priestess’s hyper-conflicted loyalties. Betraying her responsibility to her people, who are oppressed by Roman rule, Norma has for years secretly loved Pollione, the Roman proconsul, and borne him two children. But Pollione now loves another druid prestess, Adalgisa, for whom Norma is, in turns, rival, supervisor, and BFF. This love-triangle plays itself out in a tightly-woven series of revelations and reversals, and — needless to say — does not end happily.
The title role famously demands a wide vocal range and a charismatic emotional presence, as well as the technical ability to manage Bellini’s intricately crafted lines, which bristle with complicated trills, runs, and other ornaments. Soprano Christina Major, singing Norma, made it all happen. Although Bellini has little interest in character development — he tends to give Norma first one mood and then another, without any transition — Major eloquently bridged the gaps that Bellini leaves, suggesting, or at least inviting us to imagine, the heroine’s inner thoughts.
Norma’s opening recitative, her fierce denunciation of a rebellious contingent of her countrymen, flowed seamlessly into the very different aria that follows, the famous “Casta diva,” her noble and heartfelt prayer to the goddess of the moon. The sense of continuity — especially crucial for such a tragic story — was enhanced by consistently excellent playing in the pit, and sensitive conducting by José Luis Moscovich, West Bay Opera’s longtime general director.
Mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen sang Adalgisa with a hauntingly dark viola-like timbre and extraordinary control of both pitch and tone. Jensen’s rendering of Adalgisa’s fleeting moments of confrontation — with rival and lover — were less effective than her splendid duets with Norma, in Bellini’s sensuous and powerful alternatives to the relentless tragedy of betrayal and vengeance.
The role of Pollione was sung by Benjamin Sloman, who has a fine, strong tenor voice — perhaps too strong for the small auditorium of West Bay Opera. The haughty grandeur that matched his authority as a Roman officer unfortunately left little room for sexual chemistry with either of his two lovers.
It is wonderful that West Bay Opera takes on a tremendously difficult opera like Norma and delivers it with such musical force. It would be even better if its fascinating contemporary relevance — national pride, women’s tenuous access to power, the desperate attraction of revenge — came across more convincingly in the acting and the sets. The action was too often dependent upon stock rhetorical gestures, and the sets seemed stuck in a 19th-century fantasy of druidic barbarity. The strangely plaid costumes and frequent baring of male chests (with body painting) did suggest a newer source (perhaps the film Braveheart), but that didn’t really illuminate the tense power struggles of the opera.
Who could ask for anything more? For me, it would be to find actions and gestures that conveyed the drama as more humanly recognizable, and a mise-en-scène that helped the audience see the many potential connections of this intense opera with our vexed contemporary world.
There are additional performances October 21–22. See the West Bay Opera website for details.
Nicholas Jones is a retired professor of English (Oberlin College) and a member of the board of Early Music America. He sings and plays recorder, violin, and viola da gamba in a number of early music groups in the Bay Area.
A powerful performance of ‘Norma’ in Palo Alto
West Bay Opera once again puts excellence on the stage
By JOHN ORR | firstname.lastname@example.org | Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: October 15, 2017 at 6:28 pm | UPDATED: October 16, 2017 at 4:22 am
On opening night of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” at West Bay Opera, I found myself mesmerized by the music. The orchestra performed beautifully under the baton of José Luis Moscovich, as always at West Bay Opera, and the singers were excellent, despite the entire mid-Peninsula area being covered in a pall of smoke from the North Bay fires on Friday, Oct. 13.
The title role, among most opera fans, is considered the most difficult of the major operas, requiring all the tricky stuff of singing — trills, arpeggios, vocal leaps — and immense power in all registers. The opening aria sung by Norma, “Casta Diva,” is a monster, and demands powerful acting and intensity, not to mention breath control. And the soprano in the role still faces another 75 minutes, of sometimes even more difficult challenges.
Christina Major was powerful as Norma. She managed all of Bellini’s fancy demands. Major stood there in a truly unfortunate costume and spouted an eruption of notes, from staccato chop-chop-chops to long, emotionally powerful phrases that knock us back in admiration.
And the orchestra was superb, delivering melodies ranging from mid-European martial music to lovely, romantic, even gentle phrases. Bellini throws in a lot of different musical influences. All that variation makes for aural delight. Especially with this great group of singers surrounding Major. Benjamin Sloman offers a beautiful tenor as Pollione, the Roman proconsul whose wandering lust causes all the trouble. Veronica Jensen’s soprano is beautiful and emotionally delivered as devoutly sincere Adalgisa. Isaiah Musik-Ayala’s powerful bass-baritone grounds the show as Oroveso. Carmello Tringali as Flavio and Katia Hayati as Clotilde are the other excellent principals.
The chorus is powerful and beautiful, creating a tsunami of gorgeous sound that burst out over the audience at the Lucie Stern Theatre. An audience, by the way, that was only about two-thirds full. A disappointment for the usual full houses for West Bay Opera.
I very much liked set designer Jean-François Revon’s opening set for Act I, with its stark tree against a rising moon. Norma’s hut in Scene 2, however, only looked tawdry. And why not rake her bed a little bit, to raise the children into view for the audience as Norma threatens to kill them? And what was that projection in the background supposed to be?
Act II, Scene 2, Irminsul’s altar, was more interesting, and closer in style to the Act I, Scene 1 design. Costume designer Abra Berman did what seems to be a period-accurate job dressing the Druids and the Romans, although the leather girdle on Major made her look like a walking barrel of wine. Previous Normas have worn a wide selection of gowns and robes, and those might have been preferable.
The story is of Druids in ancient Gaul, who want to go to war to kick out the occupying Roman army. “Norma” starts with a human sacrifice, to make the point, if we didn’t know, that the Druids were a violent, murderous bunch.
But the Druid leader, Oroveso, and his daughter Norma, the high priestess, say no, this is not the time for war.
Norma’s secret lover, and the father of her children, is Pollione, the Roman proconsul. When Norma finds out he wants to dump her and go to Rome with Adalgisa, all bets are off, and Norma spends a lot of time singing about who she might kill, including her children, because she doesn’t want them to go to Rome to become slaves.
Adalgisa, bless her heart, wants nothing more to do with Pollione once she discovers he’s been two-timing Norma.
Oh, the drama! Oh, the amazing music! Truly, it is a delight to listen to what the orchestra does. Very impressive.