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Norma earns praise under pressure

Portland Opera
02/10/2007 -  and February 15, 17, 2007
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

Brenda Harris (Norma), Elizabeth Bishop (Adalgisa), Kendra Herrington (Clotilde), Heath Rush (Flavio), Philip Webb (Pollione), Gregory Reinhart (Oroveso)
The Portland Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Joseph Colaneri, conductor
Roy Rallo (stage director), Heather Carson (lighting designer)

At the opera’s end, Brenda Harris, who sang the pyrotechnical soprano part of Norma, appeared visibly wrung out – as did the audience. Was catharsis reached? Either that or utter exhaustion.

Norma is the quintessential demanding bel canto role that requires stamina, dramatic flexibility and vocal weight. Harris pulled it off with verve, and the audience knew it. It was Joseph Colaneri’s restrained musical direction that put the polish on the opera and on “Cast diva,” Norma’s enduring aria.

Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 centerpiece role, performed by such unforgettable sopranos as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, requires a gutsy singer with phenomenal endurance. Norma dominates most scenes; she’s given hardly a break, other than in this production, by a fleet of buff thong-clad Druid warriors who neither sang nor danced but held spears, on the verge of war against the oppressor Romans, if High Priestess Norma declared it. Thank goodness for their long hooded overcoats in later scenes. The cover-ups allowed the audience to listen to the lush, liquid and lyrical music rather than to stare at the Chippendale extras.

With her magnificent stature and rich, dramatic voice, Harris took Norma, the Druids’ leader, through a range of emotions from pride to anger and hatred, to adoration and betrayal, to compassion and maternal conflict, to remorse, guilt and shame. You name it: Norma embodies Every Woman, and in this opera she goes to operatic extremes to bring this character home, and eventually to the funeral pyre with her onetime lover.

Norma is truly a “woman’s opera,” with the main parts arranged for women. Norma and Adalgisa (Elizabeth Bishop) bond with each other despite their parallel love affairs with the Pollione (Philip Webb), the wimpy Roman ruler who deserved neither Druid priestess. The most beautiful music is exchanged between the two women. And, in this production, Harris’ Norma and Bishop’s Adalgisa possessed hefty voices that rose above their male counterparts.

To add to the drama, Harris was called three weeks before show time to replace Armenian rising star Hasmik Papian, who bowed out due to illness. Earlier in the season, Portland Opera had to make do on the opening night of Faust without much-touted tenor Bulent Bezduz, who took ill and prompted importing a last-minute replacement.

In this case, you’d never know that Harris wasn’t the first pick or that she flew directly from a performance in Salt Lake City, Utah, to make the opera happen. Both he and Portland Opera director Chris Mattaliano, supported by the opera’s always dependable chorus, proved themselves capable in a crunch. By taking a chance on Norma, by no means a regular in the repertoire, we can double our respect for a company that is showing so much promise in Mattaliano’s tenure.

Angela Allen



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