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Starry Bel Canto Voices Carry The New 'Norma' At LA Opera

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One of the most challenging assignments for an operatic soprano, the title role in Vincenzo Bellini's 1831 bel canto masterpiece Norma has been a signature part for only an elite few divas over the generations. The opera's other soprano role is hardly less daunting. So, despite its satisfyingly dramatic tale of an ancient Druid-Roman love triangle and thoroughly exquisite music from beginning to end, Norma does not get performed as often as many of its peers in the repertory. It's sometimes just too hard to find the voices.

Still, in recent years a small group of sopranos and mezzi have been reviving the work to considerable acclaim in houses around the United States, including the Met in New York and the San Francisco Opera, among others. Now, for the next couple weeks, two of these singers, Angela Meade and Jamie Barton, are leading an excellent cast in Norma at LA Opera.

Although this production, imported from the National Opera in Washington, D.C., was staged by renowned innovative theater director Anne Bogart, with costumes by her frequent collaborator James Schuette and sets by prolific designer Neil Patel, its overall effect is surprisingly static. The political underpinnings of the betrayal and heartbreak that Druid high priestess Norma experiences when she is abandoned by her husband, the Roman warrior Pollione, are undeveloped. Also, Norma's essential influence over the tribe that waits on her word for military and spiritual guidance seems little more than a distraction to her and so to us. (On opening night there were even titters from the audience at several of the opera's key dramatic moments.)

Happily, the rich emotional content of the principal characters' relations with each other, as contained and expressed in the melodies of Bellini's score, is fully conveyed by the extraordinary vocal performances on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage. USC graduate Meade as Norma and Barton as her unintentional romantic rival Adalgisa are wondrous to hear, from Norma's famous initial aria, "Casta diva," pleading to the Druid goddess for victorious peace, to the sublime second act duet of attempted reconciliation ("Mira, O Norma"). Tenor Russell Thomas is strong and, particularly in Act Two, impassioned as Pollione, who realizes too late the devastating ramifications of his wayward ardor. Basso Morris Robinson is alternately commanding and tender in the role of Norma's father, Oroveso, the Druids' political leader.

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Though Norma is not an ideal "starter" opera for the uninitiated and this production is only serviceable, Meade and Barton really are singing like legends in it. That's never something to miss.

LA Opera's Norma plays this Sunday at 2 p.m. and four more performances through Dec. 13. Tickets are $17 and up.