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Norma Review in the Benicia Herald by Elizabeth Warnimont

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Norma and Adalgisa of Norma by Bellini

The Benicia Herald

Verismo on operatic roll with latest, 'Norma'

Review by Elizabeth Warnimont
Special to The Herald

Verismo Opera Company’s mission is to bring affordable opera into communities that might not otherwise be exposed to the genre. The company has met with considerable success since its founding in 1982, building a team of artists, establishing compatible venues, and broadening its audience base.

That success continued in the company’s 2011 season with Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma,” the tragic story of a Druid high priestess who falls in love with a Roman soldier, which wrapped up its run Friday at the Mira Theatre in Vallejo. An encore showing will be performed in Vacaville on Sept. 11.

Frederick Winthrop, co-founder of Verismo and director-conductor of “Norma,” said one key to the company’s success thus far has been the selection of “war horses,” operas that are well known and have been consistently popular. Previous productions include Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Rigoletto,” and Bizet’s “Carmen.”

In “Norma,” the Roman army is advancing on Gaul. The people are anxious to arm themselves in resistance, but their high priestess has been urging peace, waiting a call from their god, Irminsul, to determine when to take action.

Despite her vow of chastity, Norma (performed Friday by Teressa Byrne) has borne children by her Roman lover Pollione (portrayed Friday by tenor Orlando McCorkle). When Pollione announces that he has taken another lover, Adalgisa (played Friday by soprano Shelly Welch), Norma announces that it is finally time for the Gauls to take up arms.

Torn between conflicting passions for her trusted companion Adalgisa, her own illegitimate children, and the man she still loves, Norma finally offers herself as the sacrificial martyr as dictated by religious protocol. Pollione, moved by her noble act, ultimately accompanies her to their mutual doom.

“Norma” is not as widely recognized as Verismo’s previous selections; what distinguishes the work is its stark representation of the bel canto opera style, a departure from tradition that focused primarily on the improvisational abilities of the soloists. It serves as a fine example of a fundamental opera style, which may be one rationale for Verismo’s decision to produce it, but it is also a very technically challenging work for the singers, making it an unlikely choice for a fledgling company whose primary aim is to attract new audiences.

ORLANDO McCORKLE as Pollione.

In fact, because the lead parts are so demanding, Winthrop has the cast on a schedule that allows for each of them to avoid singing on consecutive days. The soprano role of Norma, for example, is sung alternately by Byrne, Eliza O’Malley or Jill Wagoner.

In last Friday’s performance, the role of Pollione was sung well by McCorkle, who demonstrated high artistry and skill and projected a strong presence on the stage. The two female leads, Byrne and Welch, also sang well, demonstrating stunning emotion and vocal control in the intensely dramatic scenes.

In the highest registers, though, both sopranos sounded so forceful as to effectively detract from the drama in some parts, if only for moments at a time. Their technical and expressive strengths shone through best in the more tender sequences involving Norma’s desperation around her forbidden love, her compassion for her romantic rival, and feelings for her children — swinging from contemplation of infanticide at one extreme to equally powerful yearnings for their safety in the event of her death.

Baritone Roger Smith gave a strong performance of Oroveso the priest, and soprano Marsha Sims demonstrated fine acting and vocal ability in the role of Clotilde, Norma’s lady in waiting. The remaining cast members were polished in their movement, gestures and expressions, successfully complementing a unified and engrossing performance.

The production overall feels highly professional. The sets represent the era with effective use of architecture, religious icons, and costuming (by Jill Wagoner). The musicians, including a string quartet, piano and full chorus, are all highly proficient; Galina Umanskaya was especially impressive at the console piano Friday, maintaining an effective, fluctuating rhythm and tone that consistently followed both the singers and the string ensemble.

Verismo appears to be on a roll. Audiences can feel the excitement and enthusiasm that comes across in the music as well as the acting. Last Friday’s audience reflected that enthusiasm with extended, rousing applause. It is clear why dedicated fans continue to come back for more.

If You Go
“Norma” ended its run at the Mira Theatre on Sunday. There will be one more performance at the Church of the Valley, 350 North Orchard Ave., Vacaville, on Sunday, Sept. 11. Next up, Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” will premiere at the Mira on Oct. 14. For information about either production, call 864-5508 or visit verismoopera.org.

Elizabeth Warnimont holds a BA in Germanic language and literature from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She is currently a substitute teacher for the Benicia Unified School District.

Glossary

Citation

Sims, M. (2017). Norma Review in the Benicia Herald by Elizabeth Warnimont. Retrieved from http://www.verismoopera.org/view/article/51cbf2217896bb431f6a7f70

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