Picture it: Gaul. 50 BCE. The Druid high priest urges rebellion against occupying Romans. Meanwhile, his daughter and priestess, Norma, has fallen in love with a Roman named Pollione. But Pollione is in love with another priestess, Adalgisa.
What could go wrong?
Well, plenty, in this bel canto classic that closes HGO’s spring repertory. Originally premiered in 1831, the tragedia lirica has been an enduring part of operatic canon ever since. Vincenzo Bellini's score is stirring, raging, and passionate. Beyond the Norma-Pollione-Adalgis love triangle are deeper themes of self-sacrifice and principle, what it means to hold and keep a vow, and how love can upend, well, everything.
Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska makes her role debut as Norma, while three former Houston Grand Opera Studio artists return in the roles of Adalgisa (mezzo soprano Jamie Barton), Polline (tenor Chad Shelton), and Norma’s father Oroveso (bass Peixin Chen). Two more studio artists, soprano Yelena Dyachek and tenor Yongzhao Yu, complete the cast. Directed by Kevin Newbury in his HGO debut, the opera will be conducted by HGO’s artistic and music director, Patrick Summers.
“Adalgisa is such a conflicted character,” says Barton, who has won wide acclaim for her Adalgisa at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was praised for her “sumptuous sound and innate feeling of expressive color,” by the New York Times. In a production with the Los Angeles Opera, Opera World lauded her “elegant phrasing and…gleaming voice.”
“She is in such a difficult position," Barton says. "Adalgisa has true familial love for Norma and is dedicated to serving as an acolyte in their Druid community, but she also feels a strong romantic pull toward Pollione—who happens to be the general of the invading Roman army. This results in some pretty spectacular vocal writing with many different flavors—high to low, soft to loud, and everything in between.”
Barton calls the opera “the ultimate love triangle.” But she feels the composer has left a great deal of the storytelling in the opera to the singers. As an artist, she feels that “makes for some intensely vulnerable and organic movements on stage.”
In addition to her impressive singing chops, Barton is also known for her down-to-earth persona. She last appeared at HGO in last season’s Gotterdammerung, and says HGO is “absolutely my home company.” She first performed this production of Norma at the San Francisco Opera, and says the show has gone through several changes since she first encountered it. Beyond being kept on her toes by that, she says she’s delighted to be back in Houston.
“Getting to sing a role I love for a crowd I adore?" asks Barton. "That’s what I call ‘winner, winner, chicken dinner!'”