The La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus habitually present concert performances of well known works at the nearby BOZAR Centre For Fine Arts in Brussels. This week it was the turn of Bellini's Norma, given here with Edita Gruberova, Zoran Todorovich, and Silvia Tro Santafé in the lead roles, and Julian Reynolds tasked with musical direction.
Concert performances of operas of course require careful realisation. In the relative or full absence of sets, costumes and lighting effects, it is primarily (depending on the degree of action permitted) the tenor of the musical performances that draw the audience into a dramatic impression of the piece. The conception of the BOZAR production made musical and, to a certain extent, dramatic sense, with the absence of shorter numbers (such as Pollione's cabaletta 'Me protegge, mi defende') and some connecting recitative making for smooth flow from one big scene to the next. (Though the lack of surtitles was somewhat to be regretted.) With space being somewhat restricted at the front of the stage and the scope of acting and interactivity amongst the principals severely circumscribed, however, it was primarily in the strength of the musical realisations of Bellini's effusive score that the performance at BOZAR gained its measure of dramatic significance. Sometimes looking to audience, sometimes following scores, sometimes developing the required rapport with their antagonist, the dramaturgy of the principals was, at best, muddled. It was just as well that in Gruberova and Todorovich the production could fall back on two such wonderfully compelling performers.
Zoran Todorovich, particularly, drew the audience full pelt into the heated temperatures of bel canto romanticism. His cavatina 'Meco all'altar di Venere' brought a sudden injection of charisma to the stage, the performance moving confidently through shades of humour, pathos, and above all, dramatic fortitude. Unlike Carlo Bosi's Flavio before him, Todorovich's polished tenor soared comfortably above the tumult of orchestra, only becoming submerged occasionally, as he did for example in the tremolandi and fervency of the minor B section of the aforementioned cavatina. He produced gleaming, strident high Cs at that number's climax, deservedly gaining immediate acclaim from the audience. At each of Todorovich's subsequent entrances, in fact, you could feel the keen anticipation of the audience around you build, and the tenor didn't once disappoint. His Pollione was caddish and passionate, but textured enough to interlock with Norma and Adalgisa in unexpected and compelling ways. This was true particularly in the climactic Act One terzetto (where Norma is musically absorbed by the alluring Pollione), and in the extended Finale, where Todorovich's duet with Norma outlined an emotional and musical peak of the performance.
Edita Gruberova's assumption of the layered and complex title role was as compelling as Todorovich's of Pollione, but in very different ways. Norma here was patently conflicted between patriotism, love, and jealousy, and Gruberova's attentiveness to musical detail (for instance, her 'Mira, o Norma' duet with Tro Santafé's musically forceful Adalgisa was a master class in musical capitulation) made for an interesting dramatic progression. Gruberova's voice is one of the most unusual I've heard; at the middle range she seems to smother (compellingly) the tone until it sounds from the depths of her mouth cavity, and her top is of a rare and gossamer delicacy that is yet pulsing with agility and strength. Her messa di voce technique was finely honed, whilst the coloratura passages here saw her emphasising notes similar to the way colours in an astronomical array glisten before disappearing completely into the ether, as if those notes were faraway lights only tenuously perceptible in this world. The style is mannered, but effective here. Gruberova’s legato caresses effortlessly attested the plight of her Norma, seducing the audience into total submission in a mesmerising Casta Diva. Gruberova's instrument is of a singular disposition; soft, charming, and unusual in tone and contour. And whilst it was something of a mismatch to the more stentorian Todorovich and the dynamically extreme performance of Tro Santafé, in itself Gruberova’s voice displayed enough musical and dramatic flair to be able to carry the heart of this production.
The principals had to compete to be heard every step of the way with Reynold's barnstorming massed ranks of instrumentalists and choristers, whose fervent enthusiasm sometimes had to mask a lack of finesse and an absence of sheen (particularly in the strings) in the playing. Reynolds, though, was clearly having the time of his life; lusty and alluring in the undulating string patterns of Casta Diva, tripping along merrily but with some portent in the many cavatina, and finally explosive and terrible in his propulsion of the druid's chorus at the end. This was a conductor fully absorbed in the dramatic scenario of the piece. Singing along for most of the show, the assiduous Reynolds deserves credit for consistently energising a sometimes (uncharacteristically) lacklustre band. Technical refinement was sometimes lacking, but the overall level of musical interpretation was fairly evenly matched with that of the singers, whose layered, involving, and primarily convincing assumptions of difficult roles compensated a great deal for the production's bare and somewhat unconvincing dramatic design.
Photo: Edita Gruberova