Victorian Opera can chalk up yet another winner. Sold out almost as soon as tickets went on sale, Victorian Opera’s concert performance of Norma attracted an enthusiastic response. Opera lovers were keen to hear Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece in the acoustically superb venue of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. They were not disappointed.
Those poor unenlightened detractors of the genre seem to miss the main point of bel canto opera (and perhaps opera in general). Bel canto is just that: beautiful singing. The best efforts by way of direction, set and costumes are beside the point if the singers are not up to scratch. In this case they were and fully justified under-taking a concert performance. What is more, there were no problems with production details to detract from the experience.
The role of Norma remains an Everest of the soprano repertoire with a supremely difficult first aria coming at the beginning of a hugely demanding evening of singing. To make things even more intimidating for any soprano game enough to take on the role, recordings of Callas, Caballe and the freakishly gifted Sutherland have raised audience expectations to dizzying heights. The role of Norma’s loyal friend, Adalgisa, also arouses high expectations. Sutherland had both Horne and Caballe as her second ladies, both with attributes that matched hers in crucial ways.
Making her Australian debut, Spanish soprano Saioa Hernandez gave the role of Norma, the Druid priestess, vocal and dramatic credibility. Without reading the program notes her provenance could be heard within a few phrases. It was no surprise to find that Monserrat Caballe and that supreme vocal actress Renata Scotto figure among her teachers. Not that there is any suggestion of Hernandez manufacturing her sound in imitation of these great opera singers; the timbre is still individual and her theatricality convincing and moving.
Her scenes with Nicole Car’s Adalgisa were a moving display of female solidarity, and her inner turmoil as she contemplated murdering the children that she had born to her faithless Roman lover, Pollione, were most compelling. Literally kneeling in her beautiful red evening gown before Daniel Sumegi, (singing the role of her father, the Druid leader Oroveso), Hernandez could easily have been pushing the boundaries of credibility. In fact, her whole performance had been so heightened that this was an entirely natural action. Her final determination to sacrifice herself for love and honour was spine tingling. Although a more floating tone from Hernandez would have been welcome at times, particularly in the famous Casta Diva, her soft high notes were spectacular. Totally secure and with the most gorgeous sheen to her voice, she spun the line with true bel canto expression.
Nicole Car’s acting was also a major contributor to this performance as a full operatic experience. Although she does not have the vocal weight of either Hernandez or other singers usually heard in this role, her voice has real substance. When she began singing after Pollione, (an ardent Rosario La Spina), had praised her cheerful innocence, you could see his point. Every note Car sang was imbued with sincerity and charm. Her voice was effortless and even throughout an extensive range. If a mezzo undertakes the role of Adalgisa, she has to have secure top notes and considerable flexibility, both of which Car has in spades.
The famous duet, Mira, o Norma might have benefitted from a more even matching of vocal weight, but it was still a delight. During the quieter ensembles in the second act there was a truly beautiful matching of the two soprano voices and these provided some of the most gratifying moments for the evening. It was difficult to believe that the prolonged interval caused by the indisposition of a singer, who had requested not to be named, could have been Nicole Car, but her pallor suggested that this was the case and that she had made a heroic effort to perform so splendidly.
Another notable performance came from Daniel Sumegi; always a vocally and physically imposing presence, he was well suited to the role of Oroveso. With attractive, vibrant voices and ease of execution, Carlos E. Barcenas and Lee Abrahmsen made the most of their smaller roles as confidants to Pollione and Norma respectively. Under the guidance of Richard Mills, the Chorus was uniformly excellent and Orchestra Victoria gave a spirited performance of Bellini’s melodious score.
Given the success of this venture, it is to be hoped that a concert performance of a complete opera will become a regular part of Victorian Opera’s programming in the future.
Heather Leviston attended Victorian Opera’s sell-out single performance of: Norma at the Melbourne Recital Centre on August 23, 2014.
The picture is of Spanish soprano Saioa Hernandez.