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Two Drags

Though the Met's Norma is a fizzless Bellini, the canto was truly bel at La Gran Scena's farewell concert.

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Prismatic personality: Jane Eaglen, left, sings the title role, with Richard Margison and Dolora Zajick, in Norma.  

Popularly considered the Mount Everest of Bel Canto opera, the title role of Norma was famously described by Lilli Lehmann, the Metropolitan's first exponent of the part in 1890, as more difficult to sing than all three Brünnhildes in Wagner's Ring cycle. Another formidable Brünnhilde, Kirsten Flagstad, must have agreed since she was once scheduled to perform Norma at the Met but decided after learning the part that the vocal rigors of Bellini's Druid priestess were not for her. Now our latest Wagnerian diva has taken up the challenge: Jane Eaglen, who is currently appearing in a new Met production conducted by Carlo Rizzi and directed by John Copley, with sets and costumes by John Conklin.

The news is not good. During the first performance, Eaglen may well have been having a bad night, but to these ears she sounded more like a singer dealing with serious technical problems that have been coming on for some time. She is often short of breath, her tone whitens and thins out badly up top, phrases tend to be smudged and clumsily shaped, while correct pitch must be frequently taken on faith. Not surprisingly, very little of the character's prismatic personality comes across in this sluggish interpretation. The sudden rages and jealous fits, her fierce loyalty, tender maternal feelings, courage to examine herself with uncompromising honesty -- all the diverse traits and conflicting emotions that define Norma and make her such a fascinating figure -- scarcely register at all. The vocal blemishes were already audible in Eaglen's Brünnhilde and Isolde, but somehow they seem more troublesome here, no doubt because Bellini's exposed melodies give a flawed voice fewer places to hide. It's a pity -- the basic material at this singer's disposal still has wonderful potential.

Eaglen's vocal inadequacy is made all the more glaring since Adalgisa, Norma's foil and frequent duet partner, is sung with such confidence, security, and brilliance by Dolora Zajick. Now at the peak of her powers, Zajick can apparently do just about anything she wishes with her voice, at all dynamic levels and throughout her range. The easy agility and florid technique necessary for a virtuoso bel canto singer is just the latest addition to this mezzo's imposing vocal armory. The two men inevitably tend to fade into the background in any performance of Norma, but Richard Margison's virile and forthright Pollione fills the bill nicely, and Hao Jiang Tian delivers Oroveso's Druidic pronouncements with the requisite basso gravitas. Never a popular conductor with many Met regulars, Carlo Rizzi was greeted with rude booing at his solo curtain call, although his crisp treatment of the score and sensible accommodation of the singers were anything but liabilities.

No one is much helped by the dreary production. Aside from some clever stage arrangements to disguise Eaglen's ample girth, John Copley's otherwise bland traffic direction does little to illuminate the opera or create dramatic tension. Norma takes place mostly at night and Conklin's spare minimalist set never lets us forget it. The background is black save for occasional bits of quaint lunar symbolism, while the characters wander over a shiny black platform containing an altar, benches, and a few drab objects difficult to identify from afar. The production team could hardly have put in more than an hour or two of advance thought before cobbling together this feeble effort.

Not many opera divas can sing with unimpaired vocal glory and mesmerize audiences for a full twenty years, so perhaps Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh was wise to call it quits before nature took its inevitable course. As the star and artistic director of La Gran Scena, New York's only all-male opera company, La Galupe-Borszkh (Ira Siff in private life) has gleefully spoofed the crazed world of opera and its even nuttier denizens for the past two decades, and the hilarious results have never been less than inspired. Now the time has come to say farewell, and Gran Scena's recent show in Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute was announced as the troupe's final performance.

A sentimental retrospective would have been appropriate but hardly grand enough for this diva, dubbed La Dementia by her adoring fans. Instead, the great lady's entire career was celebrated in Vera . . . Life of a Diva, from its humble beginnings in Russia through the early European triumphs, her marriage to the last living castrato, the endless intrigues and crises and comebacks, and her final role as master-class dominatrix. Yes, Galupe-Borszkh definitely went out in style, aided and abetted by her company's most popular members: Philene Wannelle (Philip Koch), Fodor Szedan (Keith Jurosko), Bruno Focaccia (Conrad Ekkens), and Kavatina Turner (Kyle Church Cheseborough), with America's most beloved retired diva, Sylvia Bills (James Heatherly), as guest hostess, and Maestro Lorenzo Costalotta Denaro (Todd Sisley) at the piano. It was instructive to be filled on some of the saltier details of Vera's ascent to superstardom, but the heart of the evening lay in the generous selection of her most memorable triumphs. I only pray that there is a video somewhere of this classic Tosca: No soprano ever carved up Scarpia with more passion or clinical precision.

With the satirical barbs as sharp as ever and the entire company functioning in top form -- and make no mistake, these skilled singers know precisely what to do with their voices -- La Gran Scena is not disbanding due to failing powers or ennui. It's a sad fact, but the opera world has become so businesslike, singing styles so generic, and the stars so homogenized, that there is virtually nothing left to make fun of. Indeed, most of the wittiest references now apply to figures quickly receding into the past. Even Kathleen Battle's bizarre antics are becoming ancient history, while Vera herself is based mainly on the highly spiced persona of Renata Scotto, only a name of misty legend to young opera fans who never saw her. Since such squeaky-clean divas-next-door as Renée Fleming and Deborah Voigt hardly lend themselves to parody, La Gran Scena has little choice but to pack up the sequins, put away the wigs, and look for other options. Siff himself plans to coach, direct, and write opera criticism, three fields in which he has already made valuable contributions. It was grand fun while it lasted, but I wonder if we've really seen the last of La Dementia. A true diva, after all, never means it when she says farewell.

Norma
New production of the bel canto opera by Bellini, starring Jane Eaglen; conducted by Carlo Rizzi, at the Metropolitan Opera.
Vera . . . Life of a Diva
Farewell concert by the all-male opera troupe La Gran Scena, starring Ira Siff.


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