The theme of the summer season at the New York City Opera is bel canto, literally beautiful song or singing. Bellini's ``Norma'' is the supreme bel canto opera, usually the province only of the Metropolitan Opera and other premier houses. For the City Opera to tackle it without trying to compete on a singing level, something different must be done. Perhaps this is why Andrei Serban was brought in to direct. I have yet to see Mr. Serban do anything in opera that indicates he particularly cares for the art form. Also, I firmly believe that if ``Norma'' is not done with great singers and superb vocal actors, it should not be done at all. Unhappily, a sense that this opera is nothing unusual pervaded the Serban direction and much of Olivia Stapp's singing of the title role.
But first, the production. This ``Norma'' was not the fiasco Serban perpetrated on Puccini's ``Turandot'' for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in Los Angeles last summer. Nor did it have too many of the inanities that marked his assault on Verdi's ``La Traviata'' for the Juilliard School several seasons back. In fact, this ``Norma'' began rather promisingly. The staged overture offered a series of tableaux vivantes that presaged the plot progression of the opera. Pollione's aria put him into
the dream he was recounting. Norma's first aria, the first of many mighty hurdles in this terrifying role, was hauntingly presented at once as a public act of worship and Norma's own very private communication with her deity and her inner self.
Yet by this point, problems had already arisen. Pollione's dream-lighting did not vanish at the offstage trumpet fanfare -- the intrusion of reality. Norma, whose first entrance is particularly grand, had already been seen marching around in earlier scenes.
Before long, all the dated poses opera is supposed to be eschewing -- the flailing arms, the beating of chests, the desperate flops to the floorboards -- were replacing the controlled, stylized gestures of the first scenes. And the stage lost all sense of locale -- a room was a room only when it suited a singer; an invisible wall was a wall only for this moment or that. Masks used to differentiate between public and private utterances became a particularly tiresome Serbanism. Nor was the ``symboli sm'' of Norma and Pollione wrapping themselves in a huge billowy spread of red silk to represent their death on a sacrificial pyre prepared for in any way. And symbolism of this sort is effective only if the audience has come to expect it throughout the evening.
There were kernels of good ideas and several arresting images (abetted by Michael Yeargan's ruins set and Mark W. Stanley's bold, though often blinding, lighting). In other words, the director could have made it work on a dramatic level so as to let us forget the deficiencies of the singing.
Not that the singing was all bad. Judith Forst, the Adalgisa, has a soft-grained mezzo that fades smokily in the bottom range and blossoms magnificently in the upper: Her high notes were better than the soprano's, in fact. Nonetheless, the role does not really suit her temperament. Robert Grayson managed much of the relatively short role of Pollione well. William Dansby was just barely up to the bass role of Oroveso.
Miss Stapp, in truth, is no worse a Norma vocally than the last five sopranos who assayed it at the Met. But she lacks the presence that is the first prerequisite to being at least a good Norma. She was not up to the role vocally -- underpitched much of the evening, with an efficient but strident soprano that blended particularly poorly with Miss Forst's in some of the most beautiful duets ever written. Nor was she helped by much of the staging -- on her knees for the ``Casta diva,'' for example, and b ent over for the treacherous runs.
Richard Bonynge was making his company debut in the pit, giving his accustomed strong support to the singers and conducting with the assurance that comes with the years he has spent conducting this role for his wife, Joan Sutherland.
Unfortunately, the revival of Donizetti's ``Daughter of the Regiment,'' a bel canto gem, was too low-key. The new staging by Renato Capecchi was not without moments of charm, but the singing was uneven and the French dialogue unacceptably rendered. In the title role, Erie Mills sounded underpowered; as Tonio, the man with the nine high C's, newcomer Robert Tate offered a tenor so slender as to be almost inaudible. Joseph McKee and Muriel Costa-Greenspon had their comic moments, and conductor Joseph Resc igno kept things moving.
The best example of bel canto came in an early Verdi opera staged for the remarkable Samuel Ramey -- ``Attila.'' This revival found the bass-baritone in thrilling form in the title role. As a presence, a singer (with high notes that are the envy of most baritones), and an actor, he is nothing short of a national operatic treasure, and in no way did he disappoint here.
In the cast was a newcomer to the company, soprano Linda Roark-Strummer. Her voice has a luster and weight that sound more suited to Mozart's Countess than to Verdi's grueling Odabella. Nor, as yet, does she sustain a role histrionically from beginning to end. But clearly this is a singer to watch. Tenor Jon Fredric West proved most successful only in the heroic outbursts, where he was his usual ringing self. Frederick Burchinal possesses a good sense of Verdi style, though the voice has lost some
shine of late. And in the pit, City Opera music director Christopher Keene also revealed a fine Verdian style -- feisty in the crowd scenes, haunting in the instrospective. Throughout, he was a strong support for his singers.