Opera companies generally pick the works they want to present each season and then assemble a suitable cast for each one. But such an approach simply doesn’t work with Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 bel canto masterpiece – “Norma.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, with six additional performances through Feb. 24
Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
“It’s one of these operas,” said Anthony Freud, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s general director, “the title role of which is so extraordinary in the range of demands that it makes on the singer, that, really, you wait until you find a ‘Norma’ and then you build a production of that piece around her.”
Just such a singer has taken the operatic world by storm – soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. The Berwyn native and Lyric Opera regular will portray the title role when the company opens a new-to-Chicago presentation of “Norma” on Jan. 28 – its first in 21 years. “For me,” Freud said, “Sondra is the reigning Norma in the world at the moment.”
Set in Gaul at the time of the Roman occupation, the opera centers on Norma, the Druid high priestess who is caught between her secret love for the Roman pro-consul, Pollione, and the leadership of her people.
This singular role has helped burnish the reputations of such past soprano greats as Maria Callas, Rosa Ponselle and Joan Sutherland, and Radvanovsky is striving to put her distinctive imprint on it as well. “That’s a trick to make it your own – any role, but especially this role,” she said.
What makes Norma so challenging is that it calls for what Bellini called an “encyclopedic” range of expression. A singer must possess uncommon vocal agility, range and power, and also be able to handle the role’s vast dramatic scope.
“It requires a really commanding, tiger-like presence,” Freud said, “but it is also an incredibly romantic, lyrical role as well. One’s heart has to break for Norma, as well as she has to be at times really terrifying.”
Radvanovsky, 47, is one of the very rare artists who can do all things. She first sang the role in a semi-staged production in Oviedo, Spain, in 2011, and offers for more quickly came pouring in. Built around the soprano, Lyric’s staging is a co-production with three other companies – San Francisco Opera, Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.
“It’s a role I feel I’ve grown with, not just vocally but acting-wise,” she said. “It’s really a demanding role and one that you really have to sit with and live with for awhile. Norma isn’t one that you do for the very first time and expect it to be perfect.”
Among the role’s toughest challenges is the vocal and physical stamina it requires. Norma sings one of the opera’s iconic arias, “Casta Diva,” soon after her first appearance and she remains on stage for virtually its entire three-hour running time, with some of the most formidable singing come at the end.
“I used to say that Verdi demanded everything of his singers,” Radvanovsky said of the composer of “Aida” and “La Traviata,” “but ‘Norma’ is like Verdi on steroids for the soprano. He [Bellini] demands everything.”
While many sopranos find the role terrifying, she seems to take its many trials in stride. She could hardly have been more relaxed during a recent rehearsal, as she joined mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa) and tenor Russell Thomas (Pollione) in the tumultuous finale of Act 1.
“You guys sound so good together. It’s really exciting,” gushed stage director Kevin Newbury when they were done running through the section.
To handle the challenges of this opera as well as others, Radvanovsky began treating herself more like an athlete about 1½ years ago by improving her diet and exercising more. But she follows no special regimen between performances of “Norma.”
Given the singer’s rare talents, it is not surprising that she has become of the opera world’s veritable stars. That status was reinforced in 2015-16, when she appeared in Donizetti’s three Tudor-queen operas over six months at New York’s Metropolitan Opera – an operatic feat that could possibly be a first – and was featured in a Opera News magazine cover story in March.
But Radvanovsky has not let success go to her head. Freud calls her one of the “nicest, most professional people in this business,” and it shows in the way that she graciously interacts with fellow singers as well as everyone else backstage at Lyric Opera.
“It’s just me, you know,” she said. “I’m just Sondra. I guess I’m kind of humble in a way and very grateful for what I do. I feel that what I have is a gift, and I don’t want abuse it with a huge personality that’s out of line and all of that.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.