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With ‘Norma,’ Boston Lyric Opera takes up a grueling role for sopranos

Soprano Elena Stikhina at a dress rehearsal for Boston Lyric Opera's "Norma."
Soprano Elena Stikhina at a dress rehearsal for Boston Lyric Opera's "Norma."Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

“Fiasco, fiasco, solemn fiasco!” composer Vincenzo Bellini reported on opening night of “Norma” at Milan’s La Scala opera house in 1831. Exhausted after a rushed rehearsal period and the unexpected death of a producer, the leads faltered in what should have been an emotionally charged confrontation scene. Facing the notoriously tough La Scala audience in the title role, soprano Giuditta Pasta came in consistently flat. Fortunately, by the third night, Pasta had settled her nerves, and the opera’s titular priestess was well on her way to becoming one of opera’s most revered heroines.

Norma was supposed to reincarnate this Friday when Boston Lyric Opera opened its new production of Bellini’s best beloved opera at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. Alas, the run was canceled due to coronavirus concerns. On the upside, Thursday’s dress rehearsal was recorded, something opera lovers can hear soon on 99.5 WCRB-FM.

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“Norma” tells the story of a Druid high priestess in Roman-occupied Gaul, betrayed by the enemy proconsul she secretly loved. Widely considered the pinnacle of bel canto opera, it has the pyrotechnic flights typical of the genre, and some of the most expressive melodies and harmonies. More than its peers, however, “Norma” notably digs into the drama of its poetic and propulsive libretto. While it’s common to observe that “La Traviata” requires a different soprano in each of its three acts — coloratura, lyric, and dramatic, respectively — “Norma” demands the presence of all three at once. It’s an endurance test of an opera that mercilessly reveals the singer’s every technical flaw, and perhaps even exposes — in the most memorable performances — the very depths of her soul.

Renata Scotto, whose 1980s Normas divide critics and fans to this day, likened the role to Mount Everest. Joan Sutherland, veritable queen of coloratura in the 1960s and ’70s, dismissed all other roles as “pieces of cake” by comparison (though she later claimed “Anna Bolena” was harder). Even Maria Callas, whose legendary recordings continue to define the role for many, regarded it as the most difficult in her repertoire.

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Sopranos capable of scaling such heights tend to command fees that only top opera companies can afford. As BLO general and artistic director Esther Nelson put it in a recent interview: "There’s no point in even thinking about ‘Norma’ unless you already have the soprano.”

It’s been nearly 40 years since “Norma” last graced Boston stages. (Meanwhile, New York critics complained about overexposure as recently as 2017.) Boston’s first came in 1854, with Giulia Grisi (Norma’s romantic rival, Adalgisa, in the world premiere) taking over the title role. By 1890, when the Metropolitan Opera’s touring production came to town, the Boston Evening Transcript already complained that such a “prime favorite” had “almost completely lapsed from the repertory.”

Half a century passed before the next Met “Norma” visited Boston in 1945, followed by another in 1970. Then, in a short span, came prominent role debuts by two celebrity sopranos.

Beverly Sills with Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston made for a grand affair in 1971. Hordes of New Yorkers attended, and the opening night after-party boasted live oak trees and a feast of pheasant, quail, duck, rabbit, boar, and caviar with ice sculptures holding champagne and English mead. The Globe’s Michael Steinberg was so impressed, he chased 876 words of praise with another 1,428-word elaboration the next week, enthusing over the most effective “Norma” he had ever heard.

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June, 1971: Beverly Sills performed the title role in Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston production of "Norma."
June, 1971: Beverly Sills performed the title role in Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston production of "Norma."Handout/The Boston Globe

Shirley Verrett’s turn came in 1976 when the Met arrived for its Boston residency, an annual tradition at the time. The Globe’s Richard Dyer noted imperfections amid a mostly gorgeous and dramatically compelling portrayal. Dyer also foretold improvements that materialized when Verrett reprised the role for Opera Company of Boston in 1983, with “added light and shade, detail and discipline, repose and passion.” (Meanwhile, BLO’s first production of “Norma” and another Met visit both failed to inspire as much excitement in 1982.)

Now Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, who made her American debut in BLO’s 2017 “Tosca,” joins Sills and Verrett in offering Boston her first “Norma.” The Globe’s Jeremy Eichler described Stikhina’s “Tosca” performance as having “unusual allure, catching the ear with its combination of glow and penetration, lightness and strength, at times floating above the orchestra, at times slicing through it.” But he also observed that “her ability to dramatically inhabit the role … was not yet commensurate with her thrilling vocalism.”

Since then Stikhina has tackled lead roles from Verdi and Puccini to Wagner and Richard Strauss, on some of the biggest stages in Europe as well as at the Met. Talking after rehearsal two weeks ago, Stikhina said she tries not to think of her predecessors as she prepares for the daunting role, but to focus on finding the seeds of drama in the text.

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Elena Stikhina rehearsed with tenor Jonathan Burton, who plays Pollione in Boston Lyric Opera's "Norma." Sandra Piques Eddy, as Adalgisa, is in the background.
Elena Stikhina rehearsed with tenor Jonathan Burton, who plays Pollione in Boston Lyric Opera's "Norma." Sandra Piques Eddy, as Adalgisa, is in the background. Matthew J. Lee

What separates the good from the great from the immortal in the already elite array of Normas is neither endurance nor euphony — it’s how the singer expresses the character’s many layers as a spiritual, political, and military leader; a woman who betrayed her vows and people out of love for an enemy, only to have him abandon her; a single mother of sons she must hide in shame; an elder sister-mentor to a rival in whom she sees her younger self. No less than Verdi and Wagner both expressed their admiration for how eloquently Bellini set words to music in what Schopenhauer deemed “a tragedy of extreme perfection.”

“Opera must make people weep, feel horrified, die through singing,” Bellini wrote. Giuditta Pasta, the original Norma for whom Bellini custom-composed and revised the role, was famous for an imperfect and somewhat limited voice that she wielded with acute dramatic intelligence. One could say the same of Callas, especially in later years when her voice faltered but her characterization deepened. For opera lovers, it’s exciting to contemplate which faces of Norma we’ll get from the WCRB broadcast. And how will Stikhina color those faces with shades of weeping and horror? As well as tenderness, fury, remorse, and all the expanses of human emotion? How will Norma come to life through the singing?

NORMA ON WCRB-FM

The final dress rehearsal for Boston Lyric Opera’s NORMA was recorded in collaboration with 99.5 WCRB-FM. Check classicalwcrb.org and blo.org for broadcast times and updates.

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CJ Ru is on Twitter at @cjruse.