Lightning has struck so many times repeatedly at The Metropolitan Opera since the arrival of Peter Gelb that when something goes awry you really feel it. A sense of disappointment envelops the house and it doesn't let go. When it happens to an opera that is a well-known standard, then the feeling is even more. Thus it was last night at the current revival of Norma, by Vincenzo Bellini; clearly, the first mishap of what thus far has been a prodigious opera season.
Norma is not an easy opera to produce. In my lifetime, I cannot say that I have experienced a totally fulfilling performance of this work. Historically, Norma has fallen in and out of favor since its composition in the early part of the 19th century, and at the Metropolitan Opera it was first performed in German, and then in Italian as a vehicle for the great Rosa Ponselle. The postwar period went on to prove that powerhouse performers such as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland can catapult a work into the repertory. Their mesmerizing performances of this work (both live and recorded) taught us firstly that Norma is one of the greatest works in the Italian repertory, and secondly that you need a titanic performer in the title role in order for the work to come alive.
Last night proved that Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian is not a Norma. She managed all the notes fairly well, but everything sounded the same. In such a role (in any role!) it is not enough to sing the notes: one has to create character through the voice. This she did not do. What most people will remember best about her Norma were those wonderful costume changes, and how good she looked in that fiery, blood-red number. And as far as the tenor is concerned, the least said about him the better. Should Franco Farina be singing these roles at a house like the MET? His bio in the playbill warns us that he will be singing Otello (Verdi or Rossini?) at Hamburg this season -- Yikes!
The real culprit in all of this was conductor Maurizio Benini who after leading a bubbly reading last year of Bartlett Sher's Il Barbiere di Siviglia decided to put on a serious hat and treat Norma as if it was a lead balloon. The evening crawled to a halt more times than I care to remember. Instead of propelling the music forward, as James Levine succeeded in doing earlier this season with Lucia di Lammermoor and Macbeth, Benini selected tempi that seemed to slow everything down. Now and then there were interesting touches of life from the orchestra, but his conducting turned out to be a heavy-handed affair throughout the evening. This approach can be deadly in a work like Norma. Even the great Dolora Zajick, who vocally was clearly the best performer on that stage, seemed hampered by Benini's lackluster reading.
Maybe one day I will get to hear a great Norma live at the MET. Unfortunately, not this season.