Knoxville Opera Raises the Bar Again With 'Norma''s High-Flying Vocal Performances

There's been so much bar-raising done over the last few years in Knoxville Opera productions that one might assume—short of going broke booking big-name singers and acquiring expensive, original sets—that there would be little more that is possible under the circumstances. However, quite the contrary, it seems—the company's Rossini Festival production of Bellini's Norma last weekend pushed the vocal performance bar to a new lofty level as soprano Rochelle Bard and mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges set the Tennessee Theatre stage on fire in the opera's two essential roles.

Bard was magnificent in her debut as the chief Druid priestess, Norma, handling the visceral lows with richness and intent and the highs with confidence wrapped in a tender but brilliant softness. Equally important, she carried off the dramatic contrast between the grandeur of confident matriarchal strength and the rage of a spurned woman with as much believability as can be wrung out of the role.

Although one expects great things from Norma's Act I aria, "Casta diva," Bard surprised even me with a beautifully constructed and achingly gorgeous delivery, at times soft as a whisper, and at others thrilling in its altitude. Her ability with coloratura details ranged from enticing to lyrical, without a hint of ostentation so common in divas of yore. Clearly, this should be the first of many Normas for Bard.

KO executive director Brian Salesky hit pay dirt in casting the role of the priestess Adalgisa with mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges, a singer probably unlikely to be in Knoxville Opera's price range for much longer. Bridges' voice is warm and velvety, but with a thrilling edge quite miraculous in a young singer. Her Act I aria, "Sgombra è la sacra selva … Deh! proteggimi, o Dio," a prayer to her god to protect her from the misfortunes of love, was memorable for its dramatic impact, not to mention a clarity of tone capable of causing a few spine tingles.

As Pollione, the Roman proconsul and the father of Norma's children, tenor Ta'u Pupu'a cut a striking and bold figure. Despite an attractive and amazingly expansive range with plenty of power and attractive sweet spots, Pupu'a is still a vocal work in progress—along with lots of potential, he has a bit of vocal tension that yields unpredictable results.

The secondary roles all got first-rate treatment—soprano Linda Barnett as Clotilde, tenor Sergio Cepeda as Flavio, and bass Kevin Thompson as Oroveso.

To fully enjoy Norma, one must accept the premise that this is a work designed to showcase the human voice rather than the visual and dramatic aspects of theatre. With very little physical action and minimal scenic motivation, the task for a stage director is not a particularly enviable one by traditional epic standards. Elizabeth Bachman gave the singers everything they needed, motivation-wise, without resorting to melodrama or meaningless movement. I couldn't help feeling, though, that a few more dimensional scenic elements would have been helpful to bring some subconscious visual drama to the otherwise flat, painted perspective. Lighting designer John Horner handled these limitations well, providing beautifully soft separation and focus for the singers.

Bachman also used the opera's overture to interesting effect by providing a logical backstory—not part of the libretto—to the opera plot via the projected supertitles. The supposition of what had happened to bring the characters to their current state in the plot was a useful dramatic touch and both filled in some of the awkward holes and answered questions of motivation that audiences always find themselves asking. For example, where did Norma and Pollione meet and how had they managed to secretly have two children? In Rome, where Norma had been imprisoned prior to being returned to Gaul.

While the crowd scenes of the Druid people exist only to move the plot along, the Knoxville Opera chorus, under chorusmaster Don Townsend, did a solid job of choral support and group acting. Salesky conducted the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra with crisp pacing and nicely tuned attention to the marvelous textural details in the Bellini orchestration.

The company has just announced its 2014-15 season, which includes Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, Bizet's Carmen, and Verdi's Il Trovatore.