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Bellini's 'Norma' at the Kennedy Center

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma" is a tale of self-interest versus altruism, an opera built around the concept of social upheaval and personal struggle. In its stunning new production of "Norma," intelligently and cleanly directed by Anne Bogart, the Washington National Opera maximizes the causes and effects of those conflicts, without for a moment forsaking the beauty of Bellini's intricate bel canto style.

"Norma" takes place in 50 BCE in Gaul, when the oppressed Druids were struggling to survive their conquerors, the Romans. At the start of "Norma," the Druid men want to rise up against their oppressor, but their high priestess, Norma (Angela Meade), counsels them to remain peaceful.

Norma has at an earlier time secretly fallen in love with a Roman proconsul, Pollione (Rafael Davila), and has had two children with him. She rebels against him when he rejects her in favor of a younger temple virgin, Adalgisa (Dolora Zajick), and struggles to resolve her feelings of desire, anger and concern that she has betrayed her people by loving a representative of the enemy.

Acting these complex emotions while at the same time singing Bellini's extraordinarily difficult music is what makes the title role of "Norma" one of the most challenging in opera. But Meade is well-equipped to portray everything from jealousy to desire for vengeance to forgiveness to maternal love.

Onstage
Bellini's 'Norma'
» Where: The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW
» When: Through March 24
» Info: $25 to $300; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org

And she is equally well-suited to handle Bellini's score with its florid embellishment, demonstrating astounding dynamic control, sliding smoothly from pianissimo to fortissimo, reveling in the coloratura elements of Bellini's style. Meade is particularly impressive in her delivery of the opera's most famous aria, "Casta diva."

Zajick is equally effective as Adalgisa. Like Meade, she is comfortable at the upper as well as the lower ends of the register and with dramatic crescendos. Zajick and Meade have several duets, their voices mingling beautifully in complicated trills and runs.

Davila is powerful as Pollione. His fluid tenor nicely complements Zajick's and Meade's voices, particularly in their trio at the end of Act I.

The large chorus and corps of dancers are directed smoothly by chorus master Steven Gathman and choreographer Barney O'Hanlon. Conductor Daniele Rustioni and the Washington National Opera Orchestra perform Bellini's music well, in intriguing, sometimes unconventional pacing.

The floor of Neil Patel's spare set is gray and steeply raked, with a circular cut-out for the Druids' sacred grove. Although earlier a place of war, it is ultimately a place of peace as Norma ascends to the funeral pyre and willingly sacrifices herself for the sake of loyalty to her people, becoming the chaste goddess she was meant to be at the beginning of the opera, a symbol of honesty and character.

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