The absence of Bellini’s celebrated “Norma” from the Metropolitan Opera repertoire for more than two decades probably has more than one cause. James Levine’s relative lack of enthusiasm for bel canto opera is likely among them, but the most widely noted is the absence of sopranos capable of meeting the title role’s myriad challenges. It can’t have helped that the last reigning Met diva to tackle the role, Renata Scotto, went down in flames, as it were.
The anticipation for the company’s new production, starring Jane Eaglen, was thus unnaturally high (all perfs sold out quickly), and among opera fanatics this kind of anticipation is often tinged with a fatalistic relish: How grisly will it be? The reasons for this peculiar, gleeful trepidation stemmed partially from Eaglen’s reputation as a noted Wagnerian singer; although Lilli Lehmann, the Met’s first Norma, sang both Norma and all three Brunnhildes, dramatic sopranos specializing in both are exceedingly rare.
There is also the matter of Eaglen’s physical suitability for the role: She’s a plus-sized woman — to the nth power, actually. Like it or not — and those who consider opera’s primary allure to be music certainly don’t — opera fans expect more dramatic credibility onstage these days. The title character is a Druid priestess who has betrayed her vow of chastity and given birth to two children by the Roman proconsul Pollione. Norma’s anger and despair at the discovery of Pollione’s affair with assistant priestess Adalgisa is the dramatic crux of the opera. Heavy emoting is encouraged throughout.
Sadly, Eaglen’s performance, although it mustered some dramatic expressiveness and vocal persuasiveness over the course of the opera’s three hours, is not likely to excite anyone. The first-act aria “Casta diva,” the hypnotic invocation to the moon goddess by which any Norma will ultimately be judged, was particularly disappointing. Her singing lacked the fluidity and seamless phrasing that is indispensable here — and so central to the allure of Bellini’s music.
Pinpoint accuracy in the florid passages was also missing. Eaglen’s supersized soprano has been soaring over Wagner orchestrations for so long that it seems to have lost some focus at the top of her range, and that’s a liability here.
Still, “Casta diva” aside(!), Eaglen had many impressive moments, and if her singing did not have all the delicacy one might hope for it was often thrillingly powerful. The famous duet with Adalgisa (a splendid Dolora Zajick) was beautifully rendered. Dramatically, Eaglen’s was not a performance of endless nuance — Norma’s moods were two: angry and not angry — she outlined the basic poles of this betrayed woman’s dilemma firmly enough.
By no means a bel canto specialist herself, Zajick sang with gorgeous clarity and firm tone, carrying off the evening’s vocal laurels here just as she did last season in the Met’s woebegone new “Trovatore.” There wasn’t much competition from the generic Pollione of Richard Margison, although the ebony-voiced bass Hao Jiang Tian, as Norma’s dad, Oroveso, and newcomer Jennifer Check, as Clotilde, were excellent in supporting roles.
John Copley’s stark production didn’t make up for any lack of vocal pyrotechnics by substituting theatrical ones. Mostly black, and lit with occasional splashes of red by Duane Schuler, it looked more Japanese than anything else. All the action took place on a raked, black-lacquered platform, onto which the chorus shuffled dutifully at regular intervals.
Perhaps in an effort to avoid standard cliches, there wasn’t a damn tree in sight — or much else, really — making one wonder whether we were dealing with Druids or worshipers at the shrine of minimalism. In the first act the backdrop, also black, slid open to reveal a massive moon; for a surreal moment it looked like a giant eye widening in dismay — perhaps in reaction to Eaglen’s struggles with “Casta diva”?