Sondra Radvanovsky brought the Metropolitan Opera house down last night in her exquisite first performance of the challenging title role in Bellini's Norma, firmly establishing her place in the first rank of bel canto prima donnas as well as the more familiar romantic and dramatic roles of which she is already a recognized diva.
There is a purity in Radvanovsky's voice that is inspirational. She has remarkable breath control, which results in legato passages that are as smooth as they are imperceptible and a pianissimo that is scarcely above a whisper yet carries to every corner of the house.
Apart from the vocal demands that come with Bellini's tragic masterpiece, there are the inner conflicts that beset the title character, and it is those that ultimately separate the women from the girls in taking on the role.
Norma is a Druid high priestess in 50 BC Gaul who has been sleeping with the enemy -- a Roman proconsul, Pollione, and has borne him two children. But Pollione has tired of Norma and now has his eyes set on Adalgisa, a young Druid priestess whom Norma regards as a friend.
The Druids are ripe for rebellion and appeal to Norma give them the call to battle to drive the subjugating Romans out of Gaul. But Norma realizes that would mean the death of her lover, and in one of the greatest arias in the bel canto repertory, "Casta diva," prays to the moon goddess to quell the warlike spirit of her people and spread the peace of heaven to the earth.
Radvanovksy delivers an astonishing "Casta diva." But it is only after Norma learns of Pollione's betrayal that the full scope of the character's passion enters the score. In subsequent arias, duets, and trios, Norma vents her wrath and seeks her own vengeance. There is even a Medea streak in her as she contemplates killing their two sons to get back at Pollione. An example of the full range of Radvanovsky's performance comes at the end of the first act when she rails against Pollione in "Oh non tremare," going from a low C to a high C.
Bellini wrote Norma in about three months in 1831 from a libretto by Felice Romani based on a play by Alexandre Soumet that had premiered in Paris earlier that year. It had its first performance the day after Christmas and if it was not immediately embraced by the Milan opening night audience, it quickly grew into a popular favorite and has never been out of the operatic repertory.
The role has been a magnet for many great sopranos -- Ponselle, Milanov, Callas, Sutherland, to name a few -- and after last night Radvanovksy can add her name to the list.
While the opera is a tour de force for the soprano, this Met revival has an able cast to fill the other parts. As Pollione, the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko displayed a solid voice, although at times, especially in the upper register, it had a sharp, almost metallic, quality. And while Kate Aldrich, a mezzo from Damariscotta, Maine, making only her third Met appearance, does not have a big voice, it is an assured one and her duets with Radvanovsky were lovely.
Riccardo Frizza conducted the always excellent Met orchestra at a brisk tempo that almost reached a gallop in the overture, yet still brought out all the dramatic nuances of the score, and the Met chorus was in top form as the suppressed Druids.