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Sunday, March 09, 2003

A Night at the Opera
Went to the opera last night—Bellini’s Norma—and a great relief it was. The season had seemed cursed: A terrible cough that hit on the day of the season opener kept me from what was, by all accounts, an excellent Eugene Onegin. Then when my season ticket pal wasn’t able to make it to No. 2, I invited a friend who’d just had her second baby and had been stuck in the house for months. We made it through dinner and the first act, but the intermission was so long it gave her a chance to call home, and the screaming (literally) children and harried husband had her fleeing before the second act—with me in tow since I didn’t have enough cash on me for a cab. At opera ticket prices, even in Seattle, that was a pretty expensive one act so far this year.

I’m glad to say the curse was lifted last night. Norma was played by a 33-year-old—Christine Goerke—who was really good, but the woman who played Adalgisa—Ewa Podles—was incredible. She was listed in the program as a contralto, but her voice was otherworldly. She had a huge range and sounded good from top to bottom, but she had no head voice, just a deep, throaty, full chest voice. When she sang with the soprano or tenor, it was as if their voices were Americanos and hers was a latte. (How’s that for a Seattle analogy?) Someone said they’d heard a commentator remark that when she sang the part it was as close as you can get these days to the original performance, which would’ve been sung by a castrato. I’m not sure that’s really true, but when she first came on stage, I admit I got out the glasses to see if it was a countertenor in drag—a sort of reverse trouser role. At curtain, Podles got a standing ovation, while everyone else got rapturous, though slightly less OTT, applause. It must have been awkward for Goerke—who was wonderful—to know that Podles was getting a more passionate response, though the star system required her not to acknowledge that.

The last time I saw Norma—in 1994—was also the first time I saw the divine Jane Eaglen. Carol Vaness, who was supposed to play Norma, had to drop out less than a week before the first performance, so they flew in this English woman who had sung the role in London. As I remember it, the big flap was having to remake the costumes—Jane is very big and bomb, and Carol Vaness had famously slimmed down a few years before. It must have been hell for the costume shop to find yards more fabric and remake the main character’s clothes in such a short time. But all that was irrelevant when Jane sang and blew everyone away.

It’s funny how often that sort of thing happens in opera, though I suppose it’s understandable given how delicate their voices are. It’s a classic mystery plot twist—“You say you were at the opera, yet you didn’t mention someone had to step in for the tenor at the last minute? Put on the cuffs, sergeant.”—but I’ve seen that happen lots of times. More than once I’ve seen two people play the same role in a performance. One time the gold cast member got a cold, but the silver cast tenor had already gone home, so the gold guy sang for the first act, then the silver dude arrived at intermission and finished out the opera. Then at the last Seattle Ring (my second complete cycle, thank you very much!), Siegfried had an accident toward the end of rehearsals and completely screwed up his knee. I can’t quite recall the details, but I know a young Englishman who was a much better physical fit for the part flew in to take over. I don’t think he knew all three operas, so maybe the “original” Siegfried sang from the wings one night, and I certainly remember a lot of prompting. Very exciting! Who says opera’s dull?