You can see “Casablanca” over and over. Some art is designed to be frozen in time. But the best live performance art — not once-removed audio or video versions — is a transient, one-time experience.
So when Florida Grand Opera agreed to produce “Norma,” it provided an opportunity for local audiences to experience what they had only heard other people talk about or had listened to on recordings. Because of its Herculean demands on the few divas willing to perform it, Bellini’s masterpiece is infrequently mounted.
Fortunately, FGO’s version is a superbly executed triumph that melds technical mastery and gut-wrenching emotion. Soprano Mlada Khudoley nails the title role of the middle-aged Druid priestess, and mezzo Dana Beth Miller matches her head-tohead as the younger colleague who has stolen the affections of Norma’s hunky lover.
To hear Khudoley’s flawless voice scamper up and down the bel canto score is certainly breathtaking, but to hear her duet with Miller is like watching two birds in flight, one changing course only to be mirrored instantly by her companion.
For novice opera patrons, the production directed by Nic Muni and conducted by Anthony Barrese exemplifies why you should go in the first place. Despite the raging passions and a plot that is pure soap opera, the performers invest themselves so deeply into their roles that this edition never seems to go over the top into melodrama. This is a major feat given that, intentionally borrowing from Euripides’ Medea, Norma seriously considers slaughtering her out of wedlock children to punish her faithless lover.
“Norma” is really just a hyperventilated love triangle that turns in on itself several times, with everybody willing to give up somebody and to sacrifice their love or their lives.
To abbreviate it, Norma is the high priestess of a Druid cult in Gaul during the preChristian occupation by the Romans. Secretly, she has been having a forbidden, traitorous affair with the Roman governor Pollione while counseling her people not to rebel against the invader until the time is right. Then, she discovers that Pollione, who is about to return home, has taken up with the lovely younger priestess Adalgisa. This is not going to end well.
The title role has been daunting for its marathon demands since Vincenzo Bellini first had it produced in 1830. Until the past six years, it was only attempted by greats such as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. FGO hasn’t mounted it in a quarter-century.
Khudoley, a Russian soprano in her FGO debut, displays enviable technique, When: Now through Saturday at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami Cost: $19-$175 Contact: 800-741-1010 or go to ArshtCenter.org Note: The opera will also appear 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 and Feb. 13 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $21-$200. Call 800-741-1010 or go to BrowardCenter.org. For more information, go to FGO.org including the dynamism of her voice rising and falling within a single note of Bellini’s long vocal lines. But she does far more than stand and deliver notes. Her facial expressions, posture and body language exude the initial commanding presence of an undisputed leader and then the agony of a betrayed lover.
Miller, a Texan previously seen in FGO’s “Rigoletto,” is not some dewy ingénue, but a full-blooded if basically decent person unaware that her lover has a history.
Giancarlo Monsalve, also making a local bow, is perfectly serviceable as Pollione, but he is not in the same league as Khudoley and Miller.
As usual, the leads are double-cast: Mary Elizabeth Williams plays Norma with Catherine Martin as Adalgisa and Frank Porretta as Pollione on alternating performances. Check FGO’s website for who performs on what date.
Baritone-bass Craig Colclough stepped in to play Norma’s father, the high priest Oroveso. Colclough, a 2012 FGO Young Artist graduate, gets a rare treat: When Richard Wagner conducted this piece that he loved, he took the then-common liberty of writing a section for it in the style of the original composer. In that case, it was a rousing oratory by Oroveso to whip up the populace to rebel against the Roman occupiers. Again, rarely performed, FGO decided to insert it in this production, and Colclough reportedly learned it in two days.
Mlada Khudoley plays the title character in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Bellini’s “Norma.”