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Bel canto classic at the Lyric

DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES: Lyric Opera presents classic tale of love, politics, betrayal and friendship

When men flake out, women just have to look after themselves — and each other. That’s a primary lesson in Norma, Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera about love, betrayal, heroism and female friendship, which opens November the 6th at the Lyric Opera. The druid priestess Norma is caught in an impossible situation: Her companion, the Roman proconsul Pollione, has taken up with the young priestess Adalgisa and is about to move to Rome with her. Can Norma cut Pollione loose? What’s to become of their two children? Will Adalgisa raise the kids so that they’re not sold into slavery?

“She is a woman in a lose-lose situation,” says soprano Brenda Harris, who sings the title role in the Lyric Opera’s first-ever production of Bellini’s bel canto classic. “And the choices that she makes are so interesting within the constraints of that situation. She’s an incredibly noble character, but she’s in a pinball machine, emotionally, going back and forth — angry and hopeful, angry and sad, up and down. She’s in a tempest.”

Norma is, moreover, a member of a threatened race, a woman trying to find a better life for her children while the dominant Roman culture challenges her people’s very existence. “We may not know a lot about druids, but what we do know is that this is a society that is on the brink,” says stage director Kristine McIntyre, whom Lyric audiences know from her stellar work here in Turn of the Screw, The End of the Affair and John Brown. “There’s something sort of ‘end of days’ about this story: This is a culture that is on the brink. Every choice that Norma makes is a huge, because she’s caught between these two worlds, and it becomes personal for her.”

Norma is not just a portrait of one of the most fascinating, complex women in opera: It is one of the great vocal challenges in the repertoire: Sopranos joke that they’d rather sing a five-hour Wagner opera than the title role of Norma. “It’s kind of like the vocal Olympics,” says Lyric artistic director Ward Holmquist, who is helping shape the production and will conduct it. “It demands just about everything. Sopranos have to have control of their dynamics, from the very tip-top of their register, high Cs and interpolated high Ds, and then to down below middle C. They are tested in all of their different vocal registers in all dynamics.” Moreover, he says, unlike a Wagner opera, Norma has a relatively spare orchestral accompaniment, which means much more energy has to come from the singers. “It’s not just some big tragic scene with a Wagnerian accompaniment,” he says. “It’s very, very bare. Any lack of finesse or any vocal imperfections will be immediately evident, even for those who don’t know the opera.”

Enter Brenda Harris, the fearless soprano who gave a powerful portrayal of Donna Anna in the Lyric’s recent Don Giovanni. “This is a take-no-prisoners kind of role,” Kristine says. “Ultimately what you need is a singer who is willing to throw herself whole-hog into it. I’m very fortunate that I have a soprano who does not tire easily.” Of Brenda’s Norma at Minnesota Opera, Opera Newswrote: “She had it all: unstinting intensity, brilliant high Cs, breathtaking high-note tapers, trills, elegant tone and total dramatic commitment.” Brenda says she doesn’t view the title role simply as a vocal challenge: She wants to bring the character to life. “My job is always about trying to make the piece reachable by the public,” she says, “and I don’t think we have to travel very far for this one.” For despite the opera’s setting in a dead civilization centuries in the past, “it’s still about a woman who has nothing but bad choices to make, and whose boyfriend has decided he’s through with her and has moved on to her good friend. Come on, seriously, that never happens, right? It happens all the time.”

Joining Brenda are mezzo-soprano Laura Vlasak Nolen in her Lyric debut as Adalgisa, tenor Rafael Davila as the wayward Pollione (the Lyric’s Cavaradossi in the 2009 Tosca) and bass Luiz-Ottavio Faria as Norma’s father, Oroveso (Ramfis in the Lyric’s 2007 Aida). Norma requires veteran singers across the board. The bel canto style of the early-19th century featured a new level of vocal virtuosity — roulades and trills and passagework — unlike anything that had gone before it. And Norma is among the most demanding of the era. “You have to be mature for this opera,” Laura says, “because you have to know stylistically where you’re going, what you’re doing from one phrase to the next. It can’t just be, stand and sing.”

Adalgisa plays a critical role in the drama, as the friendship between her and Norma is central to the outcome. She feels badly, in fact, when she finds out that Pollione has dumped Norma to be with her, and wants to side with Norma: This mutual respect is reflected in the music. “It’s interesting that some of the most essential and most beautiful music in the show is actually between the two of them,” Kristine says, especially the famous duet in Act 2 in which they sing in thirds for several minutes — a vivid musical illustration of their friendship. “This communion of women is important,” she adds. “They’ve sorted it out amongst themselves. … It’s a complex friendship, yet it develops into something more akin to a meeting of equals.” Yet this loyalty is something that all of us can relate to, like much of the essential drama in Norma. “It’s quite modern writing,” Kristine says. “It’s shocking that it’s almost 200 years old.”

The Lyric Opera’s production of Norma runs from November the 6th through the 14th at the Lyric Theatre. For tickets and more information go to www.kcopera.org or call 816-471-7344.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

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