Diva, from head to mistletoe

Our Own Gualtier Maldè reflects on Maria Guleghina’s first Met Norma.

True confession: I love Maria Guleghina, I really, really love her. I know her flaws but her strengths are such that they sweep aside severe demerits that would consign any other artist to filth. Among contemporary singers she is one artist who thinks big, sings big with a big voice and gives everything she has even when it is more than she can afford vocally or artistically. She lives dangerously onstage and at the end of the night there is blood on the stage floor, sometimes hers, sometimes the composer’s. She may flirt with vocal disaster but she is never routine or boring.

When she was announced as Norma, I felt some trepidation – would this be the breaking point in my love affair with the Russian diva? This is a role where guts and temperament can only get you so far. A lot of the substance of the role is written into the notes and the range of vocal demands is superhuman. Guleghina’s rough, approximate singing at the “Macbeth” new production premiere had earned her critical brickbats (the second performance I attended was much better) and it seemed that bel canto was something beyond her reach at this point. Guleghina has sung Norma before but somewhat outside of the main international circuit and not for a few years.

Now I am sure that over the Sirius network this was not anywhere near a complete musical triumph. However in the house it was certainly impressive and often very, very moving. Guleghina’s conception of the role is greater than her technical means of achieving it but she shirks nothing and doesn’t shy way from emotional extremes or vocal challenges. As an actress and interpreter she is more consistently successful than as vocalist but she cannot be dismissed as totally provincial or crude. Though a few attempts at delicacy, accuracy and finesse may fail, others will surprise you by succeeding and she scored many points in her acting and singing. The voice is major and imposing and suggests a force of nature. Unlike Papian, she was a fearsome rival and didn’t sound like the junior priestess next to Dolora Zajick‘s majestic Adalgisa.

First of all, she is glorious to behold on stage. She has lost some weight in anticipation of the January “Macbeth” satellite moviecast and the often rather soignée new gowns suited her. Tall and majestic with wide-set flashing eyes, she commanded the stage at all times.

Guleghina is often happiest when she can hurl her voice like steel javelins at the music – preferably in the higher range. Some of these vocal assaults miss the target but the energy and force is always exciting. However as Norma, Guleghina attempted many soft attacks, sustained piano singing and modulated phrasing. This in itself was admirable but years of daredevil oversinging are hard to shake off for one role. These piano phrases – including the opening and ending phrases of “Casta Diva” – suffered from hollow, unsteady tones and fell short of the intended pitch. Whereas Papian was capable of more lyricism and delicacy, Guleghina could sweep you away with passion and terrify you with her rage. The two divas strengths and weaknesses seem to be polar opposites of one another. Neither had pinpoint coloratura control but Guleghina had expressive vocal attack and excitement in her fioritura.

Guleghina’s control of her forte top was better than before, none of the many B’s and C’s turned into a squall though she can sharp. She had good clean attacks on some of the killer high cadenzas which will swoop up to a high note and then spiral downward on a chromatic scale. The downward scale was often smeared and sloppy but the top was responsive including a short but firm high D at the end of the trio climaxing the first act.

Though the first act found Guleghina at times managing the role and thinking through her vocal choices phrase by phrase, the second act showed her in greater command of the role. As the role of Norma goes on the vocal gestures become broader and the phrases grander, better suiting Guleghina’s big-boned vocal framework. The scene where Norma ponders murdering her children was a different woman from the proud and almost otherworldly priestess of the first scene – this was a tortured, desperate woman. The maternal aspects of the role were powerfully communicated – the way that she embraced her two boys you knew Guleghina has had children of her own. Maria managed to match Dolora phrase by phrase and staccato scale by staccato scale in “Mira, O Norma”.

In the scenes where Norma incites the Gauls to battle showed Guleghina tearing up the stage as the epitome of the warrior diva. The confrontation with Pollione “In mia man alfin tu sei” showed one Norma who was truly in love with Pollione even as her anger turned her against him and eventually against herself. The final scene with the moving “Qual cor tradisti” and “Deh non volerli vittime” plumbed real depths of emotion. Guleghina’s Norma was relieved to be able to admit her love and free herself from her lies even at the cost of her life. But then there were her children who were now unprotected. Guleghina’s plea to her father could have moved a stone to tears.

Throughout there were pitch problems, phrases broken by inadequate breath control and approximated passage work. But also throughout was a real, larger than life yet very human Norma who was compelling and moving whether alone or interacting with her colleagues. Imperfect? Definitely, but this seemed to be the real thing unlike Papian’s often elegant but unconvincing attempt at the role. So though the singing was anything but “casta” in many respects, the “diva” in her human and divine aspects propelled the story. At the end of the night there was blood on the stage but tears too and the fire of Bellini’s genius burned brightly. — Gualtier Maldè

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