Ms. Radvanovsky, with her bright, powerful voice and dramatic fervor, excelled in Norma’s moments of torment and fury. Her sound has a grainy cast, a slightly hard-edged quality. To her many admirers that sound is the essence of raw, true emotion, something that came through on Monday from Ms. Radvanovsky’s first entrance.
The scene is a forest grove sacred to the druids, depicted here by a tangle of tall, branchless trees. Flecks of light streaming from the moon suggest some high-up leaves. Though there is hint of the surreal about this forest, the set looks old-fashioned, even a little paltry.
Norma, the daughter of Oroveso, the clan’s chief (the muscular bass Matthew Rose), has been praying at the temple to seek guidance. The warriors, looking rough and ready, some of them bare-chested and brandishing swords, want Norma to sanction an attack. When Ms. Radvanovsky appears — her long hair loose and unkempt, wearing a lacy gown — she looks like she has barely come out of a trance.
Norma counsels peace, at least for now, in a charged stretch of recitative that leads to the great aria “Casta Diva,” when Norma prays to the moon goddess to bestow solace and patience. This aria benefits when sung by a soprano with plush sound and velvety legato, not Ms. Radvanovsky’s selling points.
Still, Norma has an ulterior motive, since she is stalling for time, hiding from her people that she is their enemy’s lover. Ms. Radvanovsky’s slightly piercing sound tellingly exposed the subtext of Norma’s intentions. Yet, when lilting phrases rose to soft, high pianissimos, she sang with beguiling tenderness.
There was some roughness and smudgy coloratura passagework in her singing, moments when she sacrificed clear Italian diction in pursuit of intensity. Her performance was courageously exposed, emotionally as well as vocally.
Ms. DiDonato’s Adalgisa, though a novice in Norma’s temple, has a completely different look. Her hair is blonde and short, almost punkish; her simple dress falls from one shoulder like some waif’s. It’s not clear why. Still, Mr. DiDonato exudes youthful longing and fretful confusion. Her melting tone and natural richness of voice were ideal for Adalgisa’s elegant, wistful phrases. Ms. DiDonato, typically expert at dispatching coloratura roulades and passagework, had some patches when he voice seemed pushed.
Still, she got to the core of the character, especially in the confession scene, one of the most inspired in this Bellini masterpiece. Adalgisa comes to Norma’s dwelling (which here looks like some gargantuan forest igloo made of branches and sticks) to confess that she has broken her vow of chastity and fallen in love. At first, Norma is motherly and understanding. After all, she’s been there (though she keeps this to herself).
The tenor Joseph Calleja is Pollione, the Roman proconsul, Norma’s lover who, we soon learn, has now fallen utterly for Adalgisa. Though Mr. Calleja’s voice is by nature burnished and ardent, he has a tendency to sing with a slightly nasal quality that can result in a pinched tone. That was a problem here. Also, perhaps with Mr. McVicar’s encouragement, Mr. Calleja presented Pollione, at least initially, as entitled and self-absorbed, and he seemed uncomfortable doing so. There was a telling moment when Norma erupts, furious and humiliated to discover her lover’s betrayal. This Pollione rubs it in: Mr. Calleja, lifting Ms. Radvanovsky’s chin in his hand, almost mocked her as he confirmed the worst.
Whatever the frustrations with Mr. McVicar’s staging, the greatness of this Bellini opera came through in scene after scene. In Act II, Norma, half-crazed with despair, approaches her sleeping boys with the intention of killing them, rather than let Pollione scurry them off to Rome, and who knows what. (Several times Norma acknowledges that she both loves and hates her children: Talk about a theme with timeless resonance.) Ms. Radvanovsky brought tremulous poignancy to the aching phrases Norma sings over her sleeping children. This is one of many Bellini moments that inspired the melodic writing of Chopin, a Bellini devotee.
The long, complex scene when Norma and Adalgisa work through their crisis and discover sisterly friendship was, as it should be, the highlight of the evening. Whether trading soaring phrases, or joyously skipping up the scale in perfectly synced thirds, Ms. Radvanovsky and Ms. DiDonato brought out the best in each other.
The conductor Carlo Rizzi led an energetic and supplely lyrical performance. When Norma, now ready for vengeance, calls upon her warriors to revolt, Mr. Rizzi drove the choristers to frenzied intensity as they cried for “Blood!” Mr. McVicar added savage-looking extras wielding flaming torches to gin up the action.
Was Mr. McVicar compensating with these heavy-handed touches for not having a more resonant concept to begin with? I still have a Salzburg Festival production from 2015 in mind, staged for Cecilia Bartoli, updated to France in the time of World War II, with the druids presented as French Resistance fighters and the Roman occupiers as vaguely German. Now that production brought out the opera’s clash-of-cultures theme.
During the enthusiastic ovation at the Met, the stage lights went up and I could finally see what everyone really looked like. I know “Norma” has scenes in a moonlit forest. But must a director be so literal about it?
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