Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Stage

Review: St. Pete Opera pulls off challenging 'Norma' brilliantly

Reading through old reviews of the 8-year-old St. Petersburg Opera Co., I find a parade of breakthrough performances, each somehow surpassing the last.

Well, here's another one.

The company, under the artistic direction of Mark Sforzini, took a huge risk in presenting Vincenzo Bellini's Norma this weekend. Norma is notoriously one of the most difficult and exhausting title roles in the repertoire. Its performance invites the most discriminating of opera buffs.

And while Elizabeth de Trejo has had several critically acclaimed starring roles at Opera Tampa and other venues around the country in recent years, this was to be her first Norma.

Brava!

She didn't do it all by herself. Her co-stars, Jennifer Feinstein and last-minute stand-in James Chamberlain, also sang exquisitely. And Sforzini's supple conducting of his 34-piece orchestra provided perfect support, not only for the singers but also for the unfolding drama. (The overture was crisp and expressive, as well.)

Norma is considered one of the best examples of bel canto opera, an Italian style that emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its vocal parts are full of pyrotechnics, florid ornament and long flowing melodies — each providing a good singer a rich toolkit to express dynamic emotion. Norma's first major aria — an invocation to the goddess of the moon — was a moment of great delicacy.

As the music unfolded, new dimensions of de Trejo's voice kept revealing themselves until, at the climax on a final high G, it came into full bloom. Throughout the opera, as Norma moves through moods of patience, betrayal, anguish and resolve, there were many such moments that could make a listener swoon. If de Trejo had any room to improve, it might be in the angrier passages when some of the landmark performances of recorded history can be downright harrowing.

Feinstein, as Adalgisa, a junior priestess in Norma's temple, showed a similar ability to bring many dimensions to a moment or a song, enriching our perception of her character. The agility of her vocal ornaments was light and assured, including one downward sliding pitch in the second act that took my breath away. The four duets between de Trejo and Feinstein, evoking a powerful sense of sisterhood, were beautifully blended.

Chamberlain's tenor voice is quite good. In his first aria as Pollione, the Roman consul who has secretly loved Norma and Adalgisa, his voice lacked dramatic variety, but as the evening progressed, Chamberlain seemed to relax and his vocal character grew. Nathan Whitson provided a solid bass as Norma's father, leader of the Druids.

Melissa Primavera and Russell Andrade were excellent too in their supporting roles. The well-blended chorus of men and women could not have been better.

The company continues wisely to invest its resources in musical quality rather than the periphery of fabulous costumes. The armored breastplates for Pollione and his sidekick were so pronounced, they needed brassieres. Sets and lighting, however, came together in an astonishing final scene.

The conventional wisdom is that one's first opera should be one of the more popular ones; Carmen, say, or Boheme, Traviata or maybe The Marriage of Figaro. But if you're curious to discover the intoxicating possibilities of beautiful song and musical drama, this production of Norma would be as good a start as any.

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