Review – The Canadian Opera Company: ‘Norma’ (October 16 – November 5, 2016)

Searing drama and epic lyricism open the Canadian Opera Company’s 2016/2017 season with a new production of Bellini’s Norma. This bel canto masterpiece is a remarkable showcase for the rare soprano who can handle the demands of this title role and the COC production boasts the return of two of today’s most sought-after divas to its stage: Canadian-American Sondra Radvanovsky and South African Elza van den Heever star as the high priestess Norma. Norma was last performed by the COC in 2006 and returns for eight performances on October 6, 15, 18, 21, 23, 26, 28 and November 5, 2016.

Bellini’s opera tells of all-consuming passion and devastating betrayal when the Druid high priestess Norma finds her life in turmoil with the discovery that she’s been cast aside by her Roman lover for a fellow priestess. American director Kevin Newbury makes his COC debut with this new staging, co-produced by the COC, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Gran Teatre del Liceu. One of the finest directors working in opera today, Newbury sets the action of Norma in a mythic, Game of Thrones-inspired milieu, brought to life through his creative team that includes recent Tony Award-nominee set designer David Korins, rising star costume designer Jessica Jahn and internationally acclaimed lighting designer Duane Schuler.

American maestro Stephen Lord has made a specialty of bel canto operas and conducts the graceful melodies and musical fireworks that distinguish the florid magnificence that is Bellini’s Norma, presented by this all-star cast with the acclaimed COC Orchestra and Chorus. Chosen by Opera News as one of the “25 Most Powerful Names in U.S. Opera” (one of four conductors), Lord returns to the COC after past productions of A Masked Ball and Lucia di Lammermoor.

The title role of Norma demands a true diva to convincingly convey the character’s emotional range while effortlessly delivering some of the most vocally challenging music ever composed. Globally celebrated artist Sondra Radvanovsky, acclaimed in past COC productions of Roberto Devereux and Aida, now brings her “dramatically and vocally arresting” (New York Times) Norma to Toronto. Elza van den Heever mesmerized audiences in the COC’s Il Trovatore with her “plush, dramatic voice capable of formidable power and dazzling high notes” (Associated Press) and delivers triumphant performances with premier opera companies around the world, including a Norma where she is “breathtaking throughout … with her controlled virtuosity, [has] the audience anxiously awaiting every note” (Bachtrack).

American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is acclaimed by critics for her passionate intensity and vocal beauty. She returns to the COC after a much-admired performance in La clemenza di Tito to make her role debut as Adalgisa, Pollione’s new lover, a character that demands supreme dramatic and vocal sensitivity and authority in order to harmonize with Norma and deliver the duets that make up some of the opera’s greatest musical moments.

American Russell Thomas is one of the most exciting vocal and dramatic talents on the international opera and concert scene. His “gorgeous, warm tenor” (Globe and Mail) makes a swift return to the COC, after his recent Dora Award-nominated turn as Don José in Carmen last spring, to sing Pollione, Norma’s Roman lover. Russian bass Dimitry Ivashchenko, last heard as “a menacing, vocally chilling Hunding” (New York Times) in the COC’s recent Die Walküre, is Oroveso, Norma’s father.

Recent COC Ensemble Studio graduate soprano Aviva Fortunata is Clotilde, Norma’s maid. Ensemble Studio tenor Charles Sy is Flavio, Pollione’s friend.

Norma is Bellini’s best-known opera and was the composer’s personal favourite. Bellini claimed that, were he shipwrecked, it was the score to Norma that he would try to save.

Norma is sung in Italian with English SURTITLESTM.

TICKET INFORMATION

Single tickets for Norma range from $35 – $235 and box seats, when available, are $350. Tickets are now on sale, available online at coc.ca, by calling 416-363-8231, or in person at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts Box Office (145 Queen St. W.). For more information on specially priced tickets available to young people under the age of 15, standing room, Opera Under 30 presented by TD Bank Group, student groups and rush seating, visit coc.ca.

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Review:

It is rare to find an opera that will re-awaken all of your senses in one sitting. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bellini’s ‘Norma’ is beautifully curated but also littered with a deep symbolic spirituality rarely (and yet authentically) brought to stage with such intensity of heart, soul and mind.

“Casta Diva” from ‘Norma’ as sung by the great, Elza van den Heever is transformational. You will appreciate every note like it is a fine wine early on in the performance.  Take a moment to close your eyes and meditate on its essence.

The ‘coloratura’ is an appropriate word in defining the ‘decorative singing’ as seen in “Casta Diva”. The audience will be immersed in it when breathing in ‘Norma’. The opera is ornate, full blossomed and aromatic in its delivery.  The libretti are illuminated as it is colored in with broad strokes.  Don’t be afraid as you are assaulted with every flower, leaf and root as it comes flying at you in musically noted symbolism and text throughout ‘Norma’.

The Druid’s religion of sacrifice, rituals, human and animal sacrifice are central to the Druid ethos and seen on stage through the images of Ritual of Oak, Mistletoe, bulls, sacred forests and burning effigies. These pieces provided the audience with a gorgeous texture throughout the performance. The audience is transported not only to a specific place and time but also a culture not all that different from our own in the present.  Themes of community versus exclusion, monogamy vs. adultery, the religious right vs. atheism and expensive love triangles.

The actors and actresses oozed a Games of Thornes meets Medea aesthetic in their luxe costuming, knotted hair and metallic tattoos. The exquisite visual stage décor specifically outfitted with totem bullheads on the walls and Norma’s children’s miniature elements of war reflect sacrifices and conflict.

As per Kevin Newbury’s Director’s Notes, ‘Norma’s moments with her children are deeply moving to me, especially in the hands of two gifted singing actresses: Sondra Radvanovsky and Elza van den Heever. Her rumination about whether or not to kill her own children envisions both a Medea-like act of revenge and an act of protection from the violent world she knows awaits them (as in Toni Morrison’s classic novel Beloved). In our production, Norma breaks the cycles of violence as she turns the war machine into an effigy and the instrument of her ultimate sacrifice.’

Elza van den Heever has set the bar high in her performance as ‘Norma’. Toronto audiences will be hard-pressed to not want to tear up when we encounter Bellini’s work in our future thanks to her dynamic performace.  Alongside Isabel Leonard, as ‘Adalgisa’, both women take us on a rollercoaster of emotions while also demonstrating to us the sheer complexity of girl drama at its finest.  Giggles, tears and a melodramatically drawn out, duh duh duh, will be experienced sequentially in this performance.

Russell Thomas can do no wrong as ‘Pollione’. Russell’s quiet yet powerfully serene presence fills the space with so much ambiance and intent that one can’t help but dwell upon each word sung from the deep crevices of his pained heart.

The three artists collide with such force and prove to be a wonderful reminder of the athletic artistry exhibited by Maestro Stephen Lord and his artists and musicians. They collectively, beautifully shape together The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bellini’s ‘Norma’.

The audience was on their feet before the curtains closed and there was a joyful yet heroic mood felt in the Four Season of Performing Arts air. The audience was sure to let the cast and crew know of their sincere gratitude.  The cast’s emotional faces demonstrated that they accepted it.

There are only a few performances left – I encourage you to check out ‘Norma’ before she is gone.

http://www.coc.ca/

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