By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, the iconic bel canto masterpiece is set to hit the stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and kick off the 2016/2017 season. Do you need a quick introduction or a refresher course on some key concepts? Here are 10 Things to Know before you go!
1. PLOT IN A MINUTE
Norma, a druid priestess, is torn between love for those she leads, and a secret passion for Pollione, the Roman enemy of her people. She has two children with him in secret before discovering he has begun an affair with her younger acolyte, Adalgisa. Norma forgives Pollione in the end, and he joins her in her fiery destiny.
Norma brings together all the great dramatic themes that dominate Italian opera: love (Norma loves her enemy, Pollione, head of occupying Roman forces); jealousy (the love triangle between Norma, Pollione and Adalgisa); friendship (Norma and Adalgisa maintain their friendship despite being in love with same man); conflict between nations (Druids versus Romans), motherhood (Norma has two children by the faithless Pollione) and finally, sacrifice (Norma commits suicide, wracked by guilt for having betrayed her people).
Bellini pioneered canto declamato (declamatory singing)—a style of vocal writing that kept the orchestral accompaniment relatively simple, allowing the audience to pay greater attention to the relationship between text and melody. This was in opposition to his Italian bel canto predecessor Rossini who opted for a more florid style referred to as canto fiorito (flowery singing).
Norma may be best known for the restrained, languid aria “Casta diva,” but it is also packed with searing drama, nowhere more so than the opening of Act II where Norma contemplates killing her children in order to seek revenge against their father, Pollione, who has abandoned her for her best friend, Adalgisa.
In the period directly preceding the bel canto era (Norma premiered in 1831), opera was dominated by the castrati, male sopranos worshipped for their extraordinary vocal technique. They were the stars of late 18th-century opera seria where vocal virtuosity took precedence over dramatic values. By Bellini’s time however, female singers became the new stars and roles like Norma set a new standard, placing equal value on dramatic veracity as well as ironclad vocal technique.
From the start, the great Normas of operatic history have all been great singing actresses: mistresses of astonishing vocal technique and outstanding personalities. The first Norma, soprano Giuditta Pasta, was lauded for her power to combine all the “several excellences of the drama, the opera and the ballet; mind, voice and action” into a complete performance. In the 20th-century, the gold standard Norma was Greek-American soprano, Maria Callas who in 1958 made headlines when she notoriously walked out of a performance of Norma in Rome, despite the presence of the Italian president.
Above: Sondra Radvanovsky in a scene from the COC's production of Norma (San Francisco Opera, 2014)
As was customary in Bellini’s time, opera roles were tailor-made to suit the talents of their original interpreters. Tenor Domenico Donzelli, the first Pollione, was very specific about his attributes when he wrote to Bellini: “The range of my voice then is nearly 2 octaves, from low D to top C. Chest voice to G and it is in this range that I can declaim with vigor and sustain all the force of the declamation. From G to high C, I can use a falsetto that, employed with art and with power, provides a means of decoration. I have a fair amount of agility, but find descents much easier than ascents.” Bellini took this to heart, filling the role with full-voiced G’s, just one “decorative” high C, and runs that mainly took the tenor’s voice downward.
Bellini’s signature style prioritized the text, allowing it to dictate how he shaped the vocal line. This school of composition was referred to as melodramma—not in today’s pejorative, “soap opera” meaning of the term, but rather, to signify “drama as revealed in melody” and to distinguish it from the stiffer, formalized opera seria of the 18th century.
A tragic clash of cultures is central to Norma in which imperialistic Roman forces occupy the Druids in Gaul. Contemporary Italian audiences would have recognized in this conflict their own struggle to oust their Austrian oppressors who at the time were sending in troops to put down revolts against their domination.
The team of Bellini and his librettist, Felice Romani, was one of the great collaborations of operatic history. The composer simply refused to take on commissions unless Romani was on board to write the text. Bellini’s devotion bordered on obsessiveness as he recounted in his later years: “It seemed impossible for me to exist without you…write for me alone; only for me, for your Bellini”.
Above: Vincenzo Bellini (left) and Felice Romani (right)
Norma is running from October 6 to November 5. For more information and tickets, please click here.
Photo credits (top - bottom): a scene from Norma (San Francisco Opera, 2014), photo: Cory Weaver; Sondra Radvanovsky (far right) as Norma in Norma (San Francisco Opera, 2014), photo: Cory Weaver
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This week on The Opera That Changed My Life, our contributor discusses two distinct operatic experiences in his life—nearly 70 years apart! We also learn about the importance of memorable recordings, and not just live performance, to the development of a true opera lover.
I was 13 years old (in 1949) and my parents took me to the Metropolitan Opera to see a production of Carmen—primarily because Wilfrid Pelletier was conducting and Raoul Jobin sang Don José. Risë Stevens sang Carmen and, if I recall, Rose Bempton sang Micaëla. I was hooked forever. My parents got me a vinyl recording of the opera with Stevens and within a year it was worn out. My thirst for vinyl never ended and my folks obliged.
Then I met a kindred soul and we got married; my wife’s grandmother was one of the founders of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Montreal Festival which produced operas in the summer.
We travel to NYC, Toronto, Montreal or other places to see special productions, not to mention the Live in HD which we have attended since it started 10 years ago. Recently, we enjoyed the Live in HD performances of Elektra and Roberto Devereux so much that we caught the last performances live at the Met. Radvanovsky’s last 20 minutes were worth the trip.
Above: Sondra Radvanovsky in a scene from the COC's 2014 production of Roberto Devereux
Photo credits (top - bottom): the Metropolitan Opera Company's program from its 1945 production of Carmen; Leonardo Capalbo and Sondra Radvanovsky in Roberto Devereux (COC, 2014), photo: Michael Cooper
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As the sun sets on the summer of 2016, the staff of the COC have been reminiscing about our various opera-themed journeys over the past few months. Enjoy a selection of photos and stories from our staff travelling abroad!
Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
I had the great fortune of travelling to Central Europe in May, partaking in an opera marathon seeing performances every night for 18 days straight! In this picture, I’m at Prague’s gorgeous National Theatre just before a performance of a Czech rarity, Bohuslav Martinů’s Julietta.
Then in July I traveled with the choir of Toronto’s St. Simon-the-Apostle Anglican Church to England where we sang Evensong and Sunday services at Lincoln and Chester Cathedrals—two magnificent examples of English Gothic architectural splendour. The picture below is of me in the Chester Cathedral.
Francesco Corsaro, Senior Development Officer, Institutional Gifts
I spent two weeks over June and July visiting friends in Rome. One of my friends is the director for the Teatro di Roma, housed in historic Teatro Argentina. The Teatro Argentina is where Rossini’s The Barber of Seville premiered on February 20, 1816. Working at the COC makes visits like this extra interesting as I get to see how a large Italian theatre company (close to 700 curtain calls per year between two venues!) operates from the top down. Working in fundraising brings another interesting perspective to these visits. Italians and Romans do not have the same culture of philanthropy as we do in Canada, which highlights, for me, the importance of connecting with our audience, donors and the larger community to ensure we can produce excellent, relevant productions for our patrons.
Behind the scenes at Teatro Argentina.
Claudine Domingue, Director of Public Relations
Unfortunately, on my trip to London last May I wasn’t able to see any opera, but I did visit the house where Handel spent much of his life. Located just a few streets from Oxford Circus is the Georgian building where Handel made his home from 1723 until his death in 1759. Which means that this is where Handel composed the Messiah, The Royal Fireworks and so many other pieces and operas, including this season’s Ariodante. After his death and over two centuries of renovations and structural changes, the house has been restored to its former layout and design reflecting Handel’s era. Little did he know that 200 years after his residency, another musician, Jimi Hendrix, would move in right next door. The Handel Hendrix Museum has connected the two flats so you can see both in one visit. Needless to say, Hendrix’s bedroom looks a bit different from Handel’s!
Keith Lam, Ticket Services Representative
This August, I headed up to the beautiful county of Haliburton again for my fourth season with the Highlands Opera Studio. This year I sang various roles in Dean Burry's The Brothers Grimm and The Bremen Town Musicians, two operas the COC performs regularly through its annual school tour. I played six different characters in total. What a challenge, but quite thrilling too! I had some scary quick costume changes, one of them was only 10 seconds. The double-bill was directed by my mentor, Canadian tenor Richard Margison, and on the piano was the incomparable Julie Gunn. Another highlight for me was having Dietlinde Turban Maazel from the Castleton Festival on faculty. She held acting classes for the participants which were quite invaluable. As an actor, nothing makes me happier than to be able to dissect monologues and sonnets.
Keith Lam as Rumpelstiltskin (right) in The Brothers Grimm, photo: John Martens.
Gianna Wichelow, Senior Manager, Creative & Publication
I spent a month in Florence, Italy, and visited the site of the first opera performance ever, which was Jacopo Peri's Dafne in 1597. This momentous event took place at the Palazzo Tornabuoni on Via de' Tornabuoni, now Florence’s fashion avenue. In its current iteration the palazzo is an upmarket residence managed by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts (who also named our opera house, coincidentally!).
I also took a side trip to Venice and saw Robert Carsen’s beautiful La Traviata. His production marked the re-opening of the Teatro La Fenice in 2004, after it was rebuilt following its destruction by arson in 1996. This production is available on DVD and I recommend it highly. I cried like a baby through Act II!
Steve Kelley, Chief Communications Officer
The first time I met Jamie Barton was when she sang Suzuki in a production of Madame Butterfly at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It’s a spring to summer festival, informal, with picnics before the opera and after every performance, the artists and audience mingle “under the tent.” I’ve been a fan of hers ever since that night in late May of 2008.
Photo credit: Tiziana Caruso as Desdemona and Jamie Barton as Emilia in Otello (COC, 2010), photo: Gary Beechey
I was thrilled when she won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in both opera and art song a couple of years later, so imagine how happy I was to read that she would be appearing at Koerner Hall last summer. I read the press release, logged onto the web and bought a pair of tickets. It was wonderful to listen to this gorgeous instrument again—and a real treat to hear Jamie sing songs. (Not that I don’t love arias!) And when she kicked off her heels to sing the last part of the recital, it was great to know that my pal from OTSL is still an “anti-diva,” a real artist who hasn’t forgotten where she came from.
Photo credit: Jamie Barton as Adalgisa and Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma in Norma (San Francsico Opera, 2014), photo: Cory Weaver
Meighan Szigeti, Associate Manager, Digital Marketing
June, I travelled around Hungary and managed to make a quick day trip from
Sopron to Vienna to see the sights of the traditional music capital of Europe.
Joining the long rush line outside to hear Anna Netrebko in Manon Lescaut
not an option, but I did manage to enjoy a tour of the Wiener
Staatsoper. The house has a very complex history owing to both world wars. Most of the house did not survive an American bombing during the last months of the Second World War,
but the front entry and salon were somehow saved from the fire and destruction. The rebuild
began after the war, and you can see a slight difference in style between the 19th-century main
staircase and entrance,
and the rebuilt boxes, auditorium and stage. One minute you’re enjoying the ornate, classical
style typical of older European opera houses then you realize your surroundings
feel a bit more contemporary and modernized.
neat bit of information to keep in mind if you’re ever enjoying a performance
at Wiener Staatsoper and feel like being a bit fancy: if you have an extra 500
Euros lying around, you can reserve the Emperor’s Tea Room for yourself and other
guests during the intermission!
Photo credit (top image): a scene from Hercules (COC, 2014), photo: Michael Cooper
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001