I've been a Norma-goer for four decades now, and I've heard vocal performances from great to good to indifferent to downright bad from the many ladies, intrepid and/or foolhardy, who've sung the title role. But I'd never heard a Norma as fully, compellingly realized as the one Sondra Radvanovsky delivered at the Metropolitan Opera this fall. From fearlessly blazing fortes to the most filigree of pianissimi, she commanded the music formidably--hushed and moonlit-magical, this was the best "Casta diva" I'd heard in a long, long time. She wasn't perfect--the vibrant tone sometimes denied the passagework clean articulation; the bottom notes didn't match the thrilling top in impact--but neither was Sutherland, neither was Cabal neither are Gruberova or the much-touted Meade. And she played the role with a fierce commitment that eluded all of them, with a vivid, eloquent stage presence and a clear belief that Norma is something other than just another put-upon bel canto prima donna. Back in 2009, reviewing her Lucrezia Borgia for these pages. I wrote that Radva-novsky "seems poised to become the long-awaited great Norma of tomor-row." Well, tomorrow is here, and she is.
It's a shame that she didn't have a better Adalgisa than the uninspiring Kate Aldrich, whose dull, faceless voice, notably smaller than those of her colleagues, turned the great duets into relative solos and the big trio into a duet. Still, she looked right (though her noisily jangling jewelry seemed hand-me-downs from her Carmen) and, like everyone else, took Norma seriously as drama--a courtesy that isn't often accorded this pinnacle of romantic opera. Aleksandrs Antonenko, a clarion-voiced Pollione if no suave bel cantist, distinguished himself, too, with a remarkable ardor and even a convincing stage rapport with his two children; and James Morris, hardly a rolling-voiced Ezio Pinza Tancredi Pasero or Cesare Siepi, channeled his still commanding tones into a vivid Oroveso. Riccardo Frizza supported them all with great sensitivity and style, and the orchestra played up to its usual elevated standard. John Copley's 12-year-old production and John Conklin's stark settings would win no prizes, but here, as never before, they proved effective enough: they didn't get in the way of either a very worthy Norma or the great Norma at its mesmeric center.