The Washington National Opera has billed its current year as a “season of divas”—about as imaginative a theme as, say, the NFL promising a “season of quarterbacks” or the National Symphony offering a “festival of music from Central Europe” (which, in fact, it did last year). Still, while the Washington National Opera has hardly ignored female vocalists in past seasons, the two productions in its current repertory are particularly flashy showcases for their respective leads, Patricia Racette in Manon Lescaut and Angela Meade in Norma.
Both women are formidable sopranos and throw their hearts and lungs into demanding roles. But it’s director Anne Bogart’s new production of Bellini’s pagan bel canto, Norma, that takes bigger risks in style and substance, and arrives at a greater payoff.
A revival of a 2004 production, Manon Lescaut is a safe bet done safely. It’s got all the pomp that opera fans like and that detractors of the form picture when they imagine everything they don’t like about opera: powdered wigs, gilded furniture, lots of mincing and bellyaching about 18th century first-world problems. It doesn’t help that the characters are to varying degrees repulsive: from Manon, a gold-digger who sings paeans to her eyebrows; Geronte, a degenerate old man (and tax collector, to boot); Manon’s brother Lescaut, who pimps out his sister to the tax man he sees as his meal ticket; to her true love Chevalier, a braggart-turned-doormat. The heroes are unsympathetic; the villain Geronte (bass-baritone Jake Gardner) less evil than entitled and annoyed with the world.
It’s an extravagant production, intentionally or not, appalling in its ancien régime excesses. The wigs alone, from the Batman ears sported by Geronte to the butt buns on the heads of a chorus of madrigals, are enough to inspire thoughts of revolutionary tribunals and guillotines. The set design is lavish if a little weird, beginning in a forest-primeval setting that makes Amiens, France, look like an Ewok village, and ending in a Satanic-red desert that apparently exists somewhere in Louisiana.
Manon is not without its charms, mainly Puccini’s score, effusively brought to life by Philippe Auguin and the orchestra. Too effusively, really: Augin brings out bucolic colors, particularly in the third act and the intermezzo that has been moved to follow it (director John Pascoe’s only real change in an otherwise by-the-book production), but at times smothers most minor characters and anyone who ventures into a lower register. The vocal balance isn’t aided by an overall weak secondary cast, including a flat-sounding Giorgio Caoduro as Lescaut. Racette, last seen here starring in the better-loved and equally cheesy Tosca, appears to be comfortable typecast as the doomed-to-die Puccini heroine. But her light, fluttery timbre, while effective solo, lacks heft, and leaves her at a loss in duets with the strident tenor of Kamen Chanev as Chevalier.
Norma By Vincenzo Bellini; Libretto by Felice Romani Directed by Anne Bogart; Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center to March 24
Norma comes much closer to meeting the season’s women-empowering pretensions. Or as close as classical opera gets, anyway. As a story, it passes two parts of the Bechdel test (features more than one female character, who talk to each other) but not the third (that they talk about something other than a man). It also contains one of the most challenging female lead roles ever written, sung most famously by Maria Callas and by few as well since.
Also set in France, but 1800 years before Manon, Bellini’s opera places its central love triangle during the Roman invasion of Gaul. As history, even historical fiction, it’s bad, suggesting that the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire is due to the wrath of a woman scorned. The opera was one product of a Romantic-era craze for all things Druid, and especially forbidden Roman-Druid love. Norma wasn’t the first artwork or even the first opera to take on this theme—Pacini’s Priestess of Irminsul came first, from which Bellini got librettist Felice Romani, which explains why both operas make the same mistake of having the Gauls worshipping a German god (here, in Norma’s famous aria “Casta diva”).
The heavy demands on Norma’s title character are because she’s a bit nuts, and her emotional range must encompass everything from forgiveness to bloody vengeance, from motherly affection to contemplating infanticide within a span of a few minutes. She’s a Druid priestess who commands her father’s army against the Roman invaders, complicated by the fact that she has a Roman officer as her baby daddy, and complicated further by the fact that he’s a Druid hound with his sights on another pagan beauty, Adalgisa. These situations never end well.
As Norma, Meade is an emotive powerhouse. She embodies the zig-zags of the role with aplomb, drawing sustained applause for a ferocious “Casta diva,” but is as enrapturing during quieter, contemplative moments. Norma also boasts a more balanced cast than Manon; mezzo Dolora Zajick and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy are especially memorable as Adalgisa and Norma’s father, respectively, and tenor Rafael Davila, as the Roman officer, manages not to get steamrolled in duets with Meade and Zajick, an accomplishment in itself. Keeping with the matriarchal theme, the mostly spare set features a vaguely vaginal backdrop that makes the whole stage look like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.
The two operas follow the Washington National Opera’s announcement of its 2013-2014 season. It’s a mix of eminently safe (a revival of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love; a new English version of Mozart’s Magic Flute) and riskier (Jake Heggie’s 2010 opera Moby-Dick) productions. It will also be the first season for new artistic director Francesca Zambello, who will direct Verdi’s Force of Destiny while Neil Armfield leads a new production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Taken together, the two will serve as a kind of preview of Zambello’s much-ballyhooed take on Wagner’s Ring cycle, still a few years off. No word yet if it will be WNO’s “season of people standing up on stage singing stuff.”