Distracting visuals apart, Utah Opera wraps season with a vocally outstanding “Norma”

Sun May 05, 2019 at 12:21 pm
By Edward Reichel

Marjorie Owens (left) sings the title role in Utah Opera’s “Norma” with Annie Rosen as Adalgisa. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

Utah Opera is closing its season this weekend on a grand scale, with a vocally outstanding company premiere of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.

Because of renovation work in the Capitol Theatre, the company has moved Norma into Abravanel Hall, presenting Bellini’s bel canto drama in a fully costumed, semi-staged production with projections by Greg Emetaz.

Bradon McDonald’s costumes were lovely — lavish in Norma’s case — and the staging by Crystal Manich made good use of the limited stage area in front of the orchestra.

The one downside to this production was Emetaz’s videography. Projected onto the ceiling and walls around the stage, the video images were fine when stationary. But when they began moving and changing into different pictures and scenes—which happened far too frequently—it was as annoying and distracting as the electronic billboards along I-15.

Ultimately, a straightforward concert presentation would have been preferable, focusing more on the music and singing rather than extraneous visuals that don’t add anything to the story or performance.

But opera, of course, is about the voices, and on that count Utah Opera has a winner.

The two-act tragedy unfolds in Gaul under Roman rule. Norma, the high priestess of the Druids, becomes involved in a deadly love triangle between herself, her lover the Roman proconsul Pollione and her acolyte Adalgisa. The drama ends tragically when she confesses her sins to her father, the high priest Oroveso. and meets her death in the temple’s sacred pyre together with Pollione.

Soprano Marjorie Owens, making her company debut, was a stunning Norma at Saturday’s opening performance. She has a commanding stage presence and infuses her role with dignity and humanity. Owens easily shifts between the regal high priestess and the lovelorn woman who despises the fickleness of her lover, yet still wants him to return to her.

Vocally, Owens is a powerhouse. She possesses a richness in her voice that serves her well in the lower register as it does when singing full out in the upper reaches of her range. She brought a wealth of emotion to her scene with Adalgisa, when the young woman confides to Norma that she is in love with a Roman, who Norma quickly guesses is Pollione. And in the subsequent trio with Pollione, Owens conveyed the hatred she feels towards her former lover not only with her passionate singing but also with her gestures and expressions.

The clear highlight of Saturday’s performance was Owens’ gorgeously sung “Casta diva.” Owens sang the long legato phrases of this demanding aria with seamless flow, beautifully crafted lyricism and finely articulated expression.

Tenor Jonathan Burton captured the arrogance of Pollione’s character well, as he matter-of-factly tells his friend Flavio that he no longer loves Norma, because he’s now infatuated with Adalgisa.

Burton is also strong vocally, with a wonderfully resonant voice that is as comfortable in the high register as it is in the low notes. He brings ample power to his singing, tempered with wonderfully expressed lyricism.

Also making her Utah Opera debut is mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen as Adalgisa. She captured the conflicted nature of her character perfectly. She brought depth to her portrayal as she sways between her love for Pollione and her vows as a young priestess. Rosen blended well with Burton and Owens in the duets and trio, and she is a vocally assured singer, holding her own in ensembles with the two.

Baritone Adam Lau as Oroveso brought feeling and dignity to his characterization. His voice is supple and fluid and made the pain he feels at Norma’s confession palpable as he tries to understand what motivated Norma to turn her back on her religion. The smaller roles of Flavio and Clotilde, Norma’s maid, were taken by tenor Addison Marlo and mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar.

The Utah Opera Chorus once again showed its musical chops Saturday, singing its extensive part with conviction and a depth of expression that was remarkably spot on.

In yet another company debut, the Utah Symphony was under the baton of veteran conductor Stephen Lord. The orchestra played wonderfully but balance was an issue, with Lord too often letting the orchestra and chorus overpower the singers.

Norma will be repeated 7 p.m. Monday in Abravanel Hall. utahopera.org; 801-355-2787. 

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