Musica Viva’s new production of Norma—Vincenzo Bellini at his bel canto best—is perhaps an omen: it is just one letter shy of “normal”. This was not the first opera performance this year, but it was the first without masks on stage. Bellini is not often performed in Hong Kong; that the City Hall Concert Hall was about as full as the (relatively lenient) social distancing rules allow, is also a good sign.
Although conditions in Hong Kong have eased, any production of this size requires planning many months in advance; scheduling it at all requires a considerable leap of faith. Hong Kong’s COVID regulations directly and indirectly caused casting difficulties, and all overseas singers had to persevere through a three-week mandatory quarantine. Any singer on stage had to want to be there; it showed.
This was very much a traditional performance: no resettings away from the dark forests of Gaul to establish some elusive contemporary relevance; the “stand and up sing” moments were left as that.
The title role was sung by young American soprano Meryl Dominguez, who had stepped into the opening night performance in a schedule change. If this, or the fact that it was her role debut, caused any jitters, none were evident. Hearing Norma sung by a singer not far off the age that the Celtic priestess herself would have been, lent a welcome freshness and immediacy to the part. Dominguez was well-matched by Hilary Ginther’s Adalgisa, very much the fetching ingénue. One can (almost) understand the Roman soldier Pollione’s switching his affections from the by now maternal Norma. But it was Dominguez and Ginther’s duets that were arguably the highlights of the evening: the pair’s relative youth added a lightness well-suited to who the characters actually are. Both were likeable, and hence believable.
The men get short shrift in Norma. Neither the glorious music nor the robust singing from tenor Dominick Chenes can really do much to change the fact that Pollione is one of the least attractive characters in opera, without even much in the way of villainy to make up for his fecklessness and infidelity. At least he had the good grace to look appropriately terrified when confronted with Norma’s fury. Norma’s father Oroveso, sung by Puerto Rican bass Ricardo Lugo, is a somewhat stolid character, but has a sonorous bass aria that kicks off Act I.
Among the local singers, tenor Henry Ngan continues to develop, with a strong presence in the smaller role of Flavio, Pollione’s sidekick. Collette rounded out the cast as Clotilde and Vivian Ip was in the pit.