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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Bel Canto Bliss: The Tale of Two Normas

By Joseph So on October 25, 2016

Elza van den Heever as Norma in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016, (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Elza van den Heever as Norma in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016, (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Toronto Bel Canto Opera Fans may think they have died and gone to heaven. Two great exponents of Norma, both in TO, to sing in the current production at the Canadian Opera Company. Talk about an embarrassment of riches!

I admit I’m a big-time Sondra Radvanovsky fan. Her Norma has been heard at the Met, Munich, San Francisco, Barcelona, and now Toronto and soon to be Chicago. The Druid Priestess is, of course, one of the most exacting of all soprano roles, arguably the Italian equivalent of Isolde and Brunnhilde. Only a few sopranos in history have truly done full justice to this role. I’m not old enough to have heard Ponselle, Callas, and Milanov, but I have heard Sutherland, Caballe, Gruberova, and more recently Marina Mescheriakova and June Anderson. All these ladies put their uniquely personal stamp on the role. I had the great good fortune of attending a working rehearsal, the dress rehearsal, and opening night of the COC Norma, with Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. She simply blew me away with her incredible vocalism.

Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016, (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016, (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of hearing South African Elza van den Heever, who is taking over the second half of the Norma run. I understand she sang it for the first time last season in Bordeaux. She is well remembered here in Toronto, from her impressive Trovatore Leonora at the COC back in the fall of 2012. At the time, I wrote the following in a review:

“…the opulent soprano of Elza van den Heever reminds me of a luxury sedan, say the Mercedes S550. As a passenger/listener you are cushioned in velvet, the ride is like floating on air…it’s big and has plenty of power in reserve… The top is free and easy…The voice is at its best in cantilena, particularly D’amor sull’ali rosee and Tacea la notte placida, both sung with nice legato and lovely high pianissimos, including a piano high C in each aria…Ms. van den Heever’s voice is remarkable and let’s hope she returns to the Company in the future.”

(l-r) Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016, (Photo: Michael Cooper)
(l-r) Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016, (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The audience on Sunday showered her and the rest of the excellent cast with standing ovations. Comparison of singers is something many opera fans indulge in, and with these two sopranos singing back to back in the same production, it’s irresistible. To my ears, the van den Heever soprano is a large lirico-spinto, while Radvanovsky is that of a huge spinto-drammatico, and darker in timbre. van den Heever makes a very beautiful sound, without a cutting edge. She is also a very fine actress, her Act 2 very moving. Her more lyric sound is closer in timbre and volume to the Adalgisa of Isabel Leonard, and the two blended very beautifully in “Mira, o Norma.”  That said, she chose not to sing the pianissimo high A-flat in the recitativo just before Casta Diva, a note that Radvanovsky sang stunningly well. There were also fewer long-held high pianos, and no high E-flat. Opera is much more than just high notes of course, but in bel canto, one has come to expect these little extras. The South African has lovely coloratura, but the breath-line is not ideally as long. At the end of the day, it was on balance a very lovely performance and Toronto opera fans should be very pleased that we get to hear both sopranos.

Since I’ve written a full review of opening night, here are just a few brief observations. Russell Thomas (Pollione) sang with his usual impressively stentorian tenor. He chose to omit the high note in his Act One aria. Isabel Leonard (Adalgisa) was in excellent voice throughout, with a portrayal that was, as usual, on the cool side dramatically. Dimitry Ivashchenko repeated his sonorous Oroveso, particularly in his Act 2 aria. Other than a (very) few tiny changes — such as no toy sword thrusting from Norma towards Adalgisa in Act Two — the staging remained the same. Once again, I find the direction rather static and lacking in dramatic urgency, although it is a minor quibble. Stephen Lord conducted an idiomatic if loud performance, always supportive of the singers. To my eyes and ears, this is the hit of the fall opera season and a show not to be missed. Three more performances remaining, on Oct. 26, 28, and Nov. 5.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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