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Opéra Royal de Wallonie

In Review Liege Norma lg 118
Patrizia Ciofi, Norma at Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège
© Lorraine Wauters/Opéra Royal de Wallonie

PATRIZIA CIOFI'S first attempt at Bellini’s Norma,opposite veteran tenor Gregory Kunde as Pollione, was the principal attraction of Davide Garattini Raimondi’s new production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, conducted by Italian maestro Massimo Zanetti (seen Oct. 20). Garattini Raimondi’s production showed the problem of presenting unfettered Druid life and rituals for a contemporary audience. Paolo Vitale’s spectacular multi-level set was a mystic mountainside, where Romans and Druids could be clearly delineated; Norma lived surrounded by the ancient stones of a Greco–Roman sarcophagus. 

The tone of the production was set in the mimed overture, in which balletic Druids offered wafting, voodoo-like gestures from choreographer Barbara Palumbo. These recurred throughout the evening with the look of a silent movie, while the Romans strutted in comic-strip armor. Norma sported an elegant diamante skullcap, but the rest of the costume and makeup designs often suggested a low-budget sci-fi adventure. The seamless dramatic flow of the last act was underplayed and ended in a timid puff of smoke. Relationships were clearly presented, helped by the tiered set, but to present the opera as a misty fresco of a prehistoric sect is to shortchange the intensity of the composer’s timeless human drama. There is contemporary relevance to be found in Bellini’s masterpiece: sexual abuse and religious orthodoxy still make twenty-first-century headlines.

In a larger theater, Ciofi’s diminutive Norma would have been unimpressive, but in the intimate Liège auditorium there was much to enjoy. From the outset, the problems and qualities of the soprano’s singing were evident. Her veiled middle register has grown weaker in recent seasons, but her true bel canto technique provided compensation, with infinite colors and detail in the upper register combined with faultless agility. With some intelligent modification of midrange vowels, “Casta diva” soared to moonlit ecstasy, and the ensuing cabaletta was managed with pinpoint precision. Zanetti was sensitive to Ciofi’s needs and kept the orchestra down in later acts when, despite admirable dramatic concentration, the soprano struggled to be heard. Zanetti offered a competent, workmanlike performance, but he failed to persuade the Liège chorus to pay sufficient attention to his baton. 

Volume was never a problem for Kunde’s Pollione. The tenor’s vocal longevity is a wonder: he tossed off a confident top C in his first aria and sang with bold tone throughout the evening. Kunde made the Roman warrior a confused lover of two women and not the usual philandering bounder. He was better matched vocally to Josè Maria Lo Monaco’s fleshy-voiced Adalgisa than to the delicate musings of Ciofi’s Norma. The mezzo’s strong upper register and forthright approach were impressive, but she needed to correct a loose vibrato and listen more attentively to the sensitive bel canto lines of her Norma. The cast was completed by bass Andrea Concetti’s stentorian Oroveso, tenor Zeno Popescu’s strong Flavio and soprano Réjane Soldano’s present but disastrously costumed Clotilde.   —Stephen J. Mudge 

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