Soprano Marjorie Owens looking forward to Utah Opera debut in Bellini’s “Norma”

Thu May 02, 2019 at 2:48 pm
By Edward Reichel

Marjorie Owens will sing the title role in Utah Opera’s production of Bellini’s “Norma” Saturday night. Photo: Kathleen Sykes/Utah Opera

Utah Opera will close its season this weekend with Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. This marks the first time in its history that the company has presented Bellini’s 1831 opera

Singing the title role is the American soprano Marjorie Owens, who will be making her Utah Opera debut. This will only be her second time singing the role, having debuted it in 2016 with the English National Opera. “That was in English, so I’m looking forward to singing it in Italian,” Owens said.

The soprano adds that she adores the character of the Druid priestess—a woman who is caught in a dangerous love triangle between her secret Roman lover Pollione and her best friend Adalgisa. “Norma is infuriated through several scenes, and I love letting loose!”

The two-act tragedy takes place in Gaul under Roman rule. Norma, the high priestess of the Druids, has fallen in love with the Roman proconsul Pollione and has two children by him. She is enraged when she discovers that Pollione has fallen in love with her young friend, and fellow Druid priestess, Adalgisa. Norma begs Pollione to give her up and return to her. When he refuses she publicly confesses her sins and is sentenced to death. Pollione is convicted for pursuing Adalgisa in the Druids’ sacred temple and is also condemned to die. He and Norma are bound to the stake and meet their end together.

With Norma, Bellini wrote what is considered to be one of the most iconic bel canto operas. He also penned one of the most famous soprano arias in the repertoire, “Casta diva” “Norma is one of his favorite operas. The music is absolutely gorgeous,” Owens said. “I love it.”

Bellini’s music for the title character reminds Owens of another composer. “Because of the technical aspect of the role and the amount of coloratura, it’s very much like Mozart. In fact, I think of Bellini as a grown-up Mozart.”

Norma has been called one of the most challenging roles in opera. The great German soprano Lilli Lehmann once was quoted as saying that singing the three Brünnhilde roles in Wagner’s Ring cycle in one evening would be less stressful than singing one Norma.

“I’d say that’s accurate,” Owens said. “I’ve never sung Brünnhilde, but I’ve done several Lohengrins and Tannhäusers and Flying Dutchmen. You need a lot of endurance and you have to pace yourself to sing Wagner, but I have to admit that Wagner is easier to sing.” 

Owens believes that with Wagner the singer doesn’t have to be constantly thinking about how to sing the words. With Bellini, the melody and how to convey it is of paramount importance. 

That’s where the difficulty comes in,” Owens said. “But it’s a wonderful opera, no matter what. And this type of role is lighter than the roles I usually sing.” She will reprise the role in Athens, Greece, in June.

In her career Owens has focused mainly on German opera. “I sing a lot of Strauss. I love Ariadne and Elektra. And I love Wagner. I’ve done several Sentas.” In September she’ll be expanding her repertoire, though, when she debuts in the title role in Puccini’s Turandot at the Canadian Opera Company.

Conducting this weekend is Stephen Lord, music director emeritus of Opera Theatre Saint Louis, who is also making his Utah Opera debut. And coincidentally, Lord also conducted the English National Opera’s production of Norma when Owens made her role debut.

The Capitol Theatre is currently undergoing some much needed renovations, so Norma will be performed in Abravanel Hall in a semi-staged version with costumes and imagery projected on the walls and stage floor. “We just had a photo shoot in front of a green screen,” Owens said. “I’ve never done anything like this before, but I think it will enhance the experience. It’s going to add to the production and not be distracting.”

The costumes were designed by Bradon McDonald, a former finalist on television’s Project Runway. “The costumes are gorgeous,” Owens said. “Bradon did an amazing job with them.”

Owens is thrilled to be doing Norma again and hopes the audience will enjoy it as much as she has enjoyed rehearsing it. “I hope they will be entertained and will empathize with the character. It’s a very beautiful and esthetically pleasing production.”

Also in the cast are mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen as Adalgisa; tenor Jonathan Burton as Pollione; and bass Adam Lau as Oroveso.

The Utah Symphony will play, and the opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

Norma will be performed 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Monday in Abravanel Hall.; 801-355-2787.

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