West Bay Opera stages strong “Norma” 
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West Bay Opera stages strong “Norma”

Singing outside the curve…

Great singing and supple direction fought against an over-the-top plot last night at the Lucie Stern Theater, where José Luis Moscovich led the West Bay Opera in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.

“How many of you are seeing an opera for the first time?” asked General Director Moscovich of the audience before stepping into the pit. “Well, it will hook you!” And that is often the case, with the high level of WBO’s performances squeezed into such an intimate hall. Like the smaller halls of Europe, this is where vocal and instrumental nuances can immerse one in an experience, and where the outsized emotions of opera can turn hair-curling.

Bellini’s choice of the libretto for Norma, however, would have been sensationalistic even for his era, testing the believability of any sane audience. Druid High Priestess falls for two-timing Roman Proconsul? Seriously? But it works! Part of the charm of opera is that unbelievable premises can open up our inner child’s capacity for make-believe, and those believable Druid worshippers and starkly elemental sets by Jean-Francois Revon quickly pried open our callused outlooks and everyday disbeliefs. Minds properly pried, we were then treated to a gritty look at some queasy emotional truths, including the wish that we could murder our children (which doesn’t happen) and a toxic love triangle. The casual human sacrifice didn’t hurt, either.

Moving the action along were a spirited orchestra, with particularly fine winds and stern horns, and the fluid and inventive stage directing of Igor Vieira.

Norma at WestBayOpera-Christina Major and Benjamin Sloman-photo by Otak JumpThe four poles of this plot and opera were stellar. Pollione was the Roman warrior tasked with befriending the Gauls while stamping out their religious practices and Druid priests. Benjamin Sloman sang that morally complicated part with a voice of smooth dexterity, a tenor that was big and buttery in every part of his range. And that smooth delivery made him believable as he championed the powers of “fate” and “love” while trying to trade in his baby mama for a sweeter young thing.

The object of his mid-life crisis was the Druid Priestess Adalgisa, sung by Veronica Jensen in a mezzo voice that resonated with thick colors and powerful yearnings. “Empty is the sacred wood,” she sang, and filled that wood with dark and tantalizing energy.

Bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala was a natural force as Oroveso, the leader of the Druids. His out-sized voice and earthen poise initiated us into ancient rites of blood and oak, and I quickly recalled his chilling triumph as John the Baptist in WBO’s recent Salome, in which he hurled mad prophecies from underground.

And headlining the cast was Christina Major as Norma, the Druid High Priestess. This is a taxing role, with long bel canto arias stretching over a huge vocal range from lyric to dramatic and nearly to coloratura soprano, and Major was exceptional in all parts. Her lows were growled and meaty and her high notes shimmered. Most moving was her rendition of the famed aria, “Casta Diva,” (Chaste Goddess, who bathes these ancient hallowed trees in silver light…). Shadowed by flute and simple string arpeggios, here we were treated to her lush low-lights and high notes that whispered into evanescence, a still life of hopes and dreams.

Equal to the vocal demands were emotional ones. When Norma learns of Pollione’s betrayal of her heart and of her trust she goes through a cycle of loss and rage and even approaches madness when she takes the holy knife and… but no spoilers here. And then she finds room for forgiveness and supreme sacrifice. Suffice it to say that I’m sure some of the “newbies” in this audience were hooked and will be back for more.

Bellini was an artist of melody, but he died before his own sense of harmony – or propriety – could mature. His short life (he died at 34) had its own drama and ambiguity, and one might wonder if the treacherous seas of love were more than just a plot.

To hear his “voice,” see this production!

Norma will be at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theater on Sunday, Oct. 15 at 2:00 p.m., the following Saturday, Oct. 21 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 22 at 2:00 p.m. Call 650-424-9999 for box office or go to westbayopera.org. for information and tickets.

—Adam Broner


Photo above of Benjamin Sloman and Christina Major in Norma. Below, Isaiah Musik-Ayala and male chorus at West Bay Opera; both photos by Otak Jump.

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