Mezzo solves 'enigma' in 'Norma'

NEW YORK — Joyce DiDonato was unsure at first how to approach her character of Adalgisa in Bellini's "Norma," but she knew she didn't want to play her as "sort of a stock character who's the good girl and crying all the time."

"I don't do insipid very well," the celebrated American mezzo said with a smile.

In the bel canto masterpiece set during the Roman occupation of England, Adalgisa is a novice Druid priestess who is devoted to her leader, Norma. But she has also fallen in love with the proconsul Pollione and is about to run off with him to Rome when she learns that he has secretly fathered two children by Norma. Horrified, she rejects her lover and reaffirms her loyalty to the high priestess.

Starting rehearsals for her first staged production of the work, which opened the Metropolitan Opera season last week, DiDonato said she found Adalgisa "a bit of an enigma." But the key to her character emerged after a few days.

"It was the idea of her utter and complete puppy-dog devotion, to her god, to Norma, to Pollione and then again to Norma," DiDonato said in an interview in her dressing room. "It's not exactly naivete but a real purity and innocence. Understanding that allowed me to give her a backbone."

She said director David McVicar had her watch Federico Fellini's 1954 film, "La Strada," and draw inspiration from the waiflike heroine played by Giulietta Masina — who, like DiDonato, wears short blond hair.

"Norma," also starring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione with Carlo Rizzi conducting, will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters worldwide on Saturday.

GETTING IN THE ZONE

Though DiDonato is new to the role, critics were struck by how completely she embodied the character in her physical portrayal.

"I think that element of my performing is more instinctive than my singing," DiDonato said. "I can get into the zone without thinking about it so much. Teenager or queen. Boy or girl. Dying or full of life. You know how the feet stand, how the hands express."

"What I can't bear," she said, "is to be onstage and not to feel that everything I'm doing is lining up in the same way. So in Bellini, if I'm Romeo, I need to feel like I could punch someone out in two seconds. But if it's Adalgisa, there's a delicacy, a fragility ... every element, the text, the color, the mind, the body are all telling the same story, so that everything else disappears and you see that if you go 'whoosh' she might fall over."

THE ONCE AND FUTURE ADALGISA

Though it's not indicated in the libretto, McVicar brings Adalgisa onstage to assist Norma in the Druid rites while the high priestess prays for peace in her famous "Casta diva" aria. He also has Adalgisa return for the finale to raise her hands in prayer as Norma and Pollione go to their deaths.

In DiDonato's mind there's no doubt her character has chosen a life of penance and chastity. "She's trying to make amends. So I do think she would now smell a man coming," DiDonato said. "Of course life happens, but at least when the curtain comes down I don't think there's any ambiguity in her mind. She'll probably start singing 'Casta diva' under the moonlight by herself."

LEGENDS OF THE PAST

If Adalgisa is hard to get a handle on, the role of Norma is one of the toughest challenges for a soprano in all of opera. It requires power, dexterity, an ability to sing long, smooth phrases and the dramatic presence to make the heroine's tragic fall convincing. Legendary Met Normas include Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe and the very first, the renowned Wagnerian soprano Lilli Lehmann, who sang it in 1890.

Lehmann famously insisted it was "easier to sing all three Bruennhildes than one Norma," because in Wagner "you are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action and the scene that you do not have to think how to sing the words," but in Bellini, "you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct emission."

WHERE TO SEE IT

"Norma," the first HD broadcast of the Met season, will be shown starting at 12:55 p.m. EDT on Saturday. A list of theaters can be found at the Met's website: www.metopera.org/hd . In the U.S. it will be repeated on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. local time.

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