Broken Vows

In promoting its new production of Vincenzo Bellini's bel canto masterpiece Norma, Houston Grand Opera has implied that soprano Carol Vaness is the Norma for this age.

Such an implication raises expectations to an extremely high level, to say the least. Moreover, it puts a great deal of pressure on the singer, even one as accomplished as Vaness, who is making her debut as Norma in the current production. It invites comparisons to Maria Callas, Beverly Sills and other legendary interpreters of the role of the doomed Druid high priestess.

That said, Vaness' performance at last Thursday's premiere was truly impressive. She displayed the vocal range and agility required for one of opera's most demanding soprano roles. Moreover, she exhibited a flair for the dramatic that made her very convincing as the jilted priestess. Whether Vaness actually is the Norma for this era, only time will tell. But she certainly displays the potential to become a leading interpreter of this difficult role.

While Vaness' portrayal alone is a good enough reason to see HGO's Norma, she wasn't the only one to turn in a top-flight performance. Mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer was excellent as Adalgisa, the Druid priestess who is Norma's unwilling rival for the affections of Pollione, proconsul of the Roman forces occupying Norma's native Gaul around 50 B.C. Tenor Michael Sylvester offered a fine performance as Pollione, Norma's unfaithful lover. Also noteworthy was bass Carlo Colombara's portrayal of Oroveso, the menacing Druid high priest who is also Norma's father. And Roberto Abbado, the nephew of renowned conductor Claudio Abbado, led the Houston Symphony in a magnificent interpretation of Bellini's stunningly beautiful score.

The first act opens with Oroveso and his followers imploring the god Irminsul to cast off the hated Roman rule in "Ite sul colle, o Druidi." Colombara and the HGO chorus get things off to a rousing start with their spirited rendition of this number. Then, after the Druids depart, Pollione and his centurion, Flavio, enter. Pollione confesses that Norma has borne him two sons. However, in the moving aria "Meco all' altar di Venere," Pollione admits that he is now in love with Adalgisa. Sylvester sang this aria with passion and commitment.

In the next scene, Norma urges the Druids to refrain from waging war against the Romans and, in the opera's most famous aria, "Casta diva," prays for peace. Vaness sang this beautiful number with depth and feeling.

Once Norma and the Druids depart, Adalgisa begs the gods to remove her love for Pollione in the aria "Deh! proteggimi, o Dio!" Mentzer offered a deeply moving interpretation of this piece. When Pollione enters, Adalgisa attempts to resist him, but she succumbs to his exhortations in the aria "Va, crudele"; Sylvester's rendition was strong and forceful.

Outside Norma's home, Adalgisa confesses that she has fallen in love and therefore must leave the service of the Druids. Norma is at first unaware Adalgisa is in love with Pollione, but soon becomes aware that they both love the same man. The tension builds when Pollione enters. In a series of ensemble numbers, Vaness, Mentzer and Sylvester effectively conveyed the emotionally charged nature of the situation, bringing the first act to a breathtaking close.

The second act opens in Norma's home. Convinced that she now must die for forsaking her vows of chastity as a priestess, Norma implores Adalgisa to take care of her children in the heartfelt aria, "Deh! con te li prendi." Adalgisa urges Norma not to take her own life and fulfill her obligations to her children in the lovely duet "Mira o Norma." Vaness and Mentzer's passionate rendition of this beautiful melody was one of the highlights of the evening.

In the next scene, Oroveso and his followers vow one day to cast off the Roman yoke in the piece "Guerrieri! a voi venirne." Colombara and the chorus sang this number with passion and commitment. In "In mia man alfin tu sei," the highly charged duet sung with depth and feeling by Vaness and Sylvester, Norma tells Pollione she will punish Adalgisa for betraying her vows as a priestess. Ultimately, though, Norma confesses that she is the one who has broken her vows and is deserving of death. In the passionate number "Qual cor tradisti," she expresses the hope that she and Pollione with be reunited in the afterlife. Vaness, Sylvester and the chorus offered a stirring rendition of this tender melody, effectively capturing the moment's emotion.

The staging for this new production of Norma is fairly static, with only changes in the backdrop made to convey scene changes. Most effective is the final scene, where Norma and Pollione march toward their deaths in a burning funeral pyre. At times, however, the lack of any real change in the setting gets a little tedious. Moreover, a rocky, mountainous region is depicted, which runs counter to the traditional image of the forest-dwelling Druids.

But this is a minor criticism. Though the staging could have been more lavish, it detracts only slightly from a solid production. Norma is rich in lovely arias, stirring duets, rousing choruses and high drama -- all the elements that make opera rewarding.

Norma plays through April 26 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas. 227-

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Bruce Guynn