On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Opera revived Norma in the production of Sir David McVicar, which opened the 2017–18 season. (For my review those five and a half years ago, go here.) Norma, as you know, is a Bellini opera, from 1831.

In the pit on Tuesday night was Maurizio Benini, the veteran Italian. The overture was sturdy and energetic. “Good,” I thought. All night long, the conducting, and the playing, was sturdy and energetic. The opera did not flag. Onsets, or entrances, in the orchestra were accurate (no small thing). Benini conducted Norma with purpose.

If this opera, or any other bel canto opera, flags or sags—you’re in trouble. The evening is a nothingburger.

Some years ago, I was talking with a famous singer, the morning after a performance of Norma. This singer is known particularly for bel canto—Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, and so on. She was scornful of the conducting she had heard the night before. Almost offended by it. She said something like this:

“Everyone knows that you need a good conductor for Wagner. But they think you can throw in just anybody for a bel canto opera. All he has to do is beat time. But that’s not true. Performances of bel canto are spoiled time after time by flaccid, stupid conducting.”

Hear, hear.

For Norma, you need a conductor, but you also need a Norma—and Tuesday night’s was Sonya Yoncheva, the soprano star from Bulgaria. In just about any role she assumes, she is a diva playing a diva. She is that way in Tosca (naturally). She was that way as Fedora at the Met earlier this season. She was that way in Norma two nights ago.

She was no cool Norma. She was tempestuous, a diva indeed. I even thought of a strange, contradictory phrase: “verismo bel canto.” In her singing and acting, Yoncheva was combining bel canto and verismo. To excellent effect.

The first thing Norma sings is “Casta diva,” the great aria. Yoncheva sang it adequately. She could have been more limpid, more liquid. But she was good enough. If she had sung that way all evening long, she would have been satisfactory.

Do you know it was the worst singing she did all night? And it wasn’t bad at all.

For about two hours, she put on a clinic of singing. It was secure, varied, smart, alert, beautiful, scalding—all that was necessary. I have heard many Normas more renowned than Yoncheva. More “traditional,” too. I have heard none better, in all honesty.

Yoncheva had a very good partner in Ekaterina Gubanova, the Russian mezzo-soprano, who sang Adalgisa. To open the Met season this year, Gubanova partnered Sondra Radvanovsky in Medea (the Cherubini opera). I wrote,

Ekaterina Gubanova, I first reviewed in 2007 . . . She had sung in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. (“A rich, throbbing voice,” I said.) Last night, she was Neris, the companion of Medea. I have never known this Russian mezzo to disappoint. As Neris, she displayed many of her gifts, including correct intonation, finding the center of the note. Gubanova “hugs the line”—the musical line—in the fashion of Marilyn Horne and other mezzos we could name.

Yes. It was just the same in last night’s Norma. Gubanova was warm, intelligent, and musical. When she and Yoncheva entwined notes, they were not mere singers, if I may—they were bona fide musicians.

“Mira, o Norma,” the beloved duet, was incredibly tender. But the cabaletta that follows, I’m afraid—“Sì, fino all’ore estreme”—lacked élan.

Michael Spyres, the American tenor, sang Pollione. Tenor, he is—but he describes himself as a “baritenor,” i.e., part tenor, part baritone. The title of his 2021 album is Baritenor. In any case, he is an impressive singer, as he had proven at the Met earlier this season in the title role of Idomeneo (Mozart). (For my review, go here.)

On Tuesday night, he started out well enough. Pollione’s opening aria was beautiful, rich, and heroic. Some high notes were cloudy, however. And the high C was pinched—pinched but there (with “there” being the key thing).

After the aria, a man behind me said to his companion, “Did he sound weird to you?” As I saw it—heard it—Spyres was not quite “hooked up.” The vocal mechanism was not functioning at 100 percent. But Spyres was plenty “hooked up” as the evening progressed.

Note, too, that Michael Spyres is Italianate—markedly Italianate in his singing. That is a big bonus for an American, or any other foreigner.

Christian Van Horn, that worthy bass-baritone, a native of Nassau County, Long Island, was Oroveso: big-voiced, grave, and gleaming. The way you want your Orovesos—Orovesi?—to be.

There are famous stretches of Norma, beginning with “Casta diva.” But honestly, the entire opera is filled with great music. A masterpiece this is. No wonder Chopin and Wagner loved him so (loved Bellini so). And if they did—surely you and I do!

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