Lo Yankee vagabondo performing Norma in Hong Kong
Updated: Aug 19
Bel canto as an American export item, courtesy of Chenes, Ginther, Dominguez
With three US singers cast in the opera's central love triangle, Musica Viva Hong Kong's Norma (July 2021) can currently be heard via Radio 4 RTHK's website (https://www.rthk.hk/radio/radio4/programme/Liveon4/episode/775049). This audio recording of the prima is well-engineered, though one always prefers that such footage provide greater room around the voices in order to better capture their projection out into the hall.
As Pollione, Dominick Chenes supplied the requisite bravado and tenderness, along with with a proud top—within minutes of his first entrance, he delivered the written high C that most tenors dodge. (Caveat: heralding his final entrance, was he obliged to shout «Adalgisa! Adalgisa!» à la Stanley Kowalski?!)
Adalgisa was Hilary Ginther, whose Carmen has been lauded in a Prior Hotspot Installment. It was intriguing to hear her in this higher-tessitura, less-densely-orchestrated music where one cannot hide the voice. Ginther can by turns roar in the top register—e.g. the high B-flat which launches the two-octave descending scale «Ah! no!» immediately before «Mira, o Norma»—and tame her voice for Bellinian discipline, fining down volume without sacrificing tonal substance. The Norma/Adalgisa a due passages were a refreshing match of the two artists' timbres, pitch accuracy, and rhythmic synchronicity. Throughout the role, even in the recitatives' hovering phrase-fragments, she phrased with feeling, wielding the language for expressive purposes.
Norma herself was the responsibility of role debutante Meryl Dominguez. She spans the role's written range (over two octaves, from B-flat below middle C to top C) plus climactic sopracuti (D at the end of act I, E-flat at the end of «Già mi pasco de' tuoi sguardi»), she has projection, she has flexibility (though the role's tightest coloratura corners want greater pitch precision—e.g. «Oh, non tremare» and «nelle fiamme perirà»). In other words, Dominguez has the vocal goods to continue with this peak belcanto role, and to her credit she handles those goods with strong emotional intent. Mastery is a far goal towards which one fervently hopes she will invest her energies, starting by developing a passionate intimacy with the Italian language, trusting every note/syllable/rhythm/rest that Bellini laid on the page, and shunning any temptation of hard use of the voice to express intensity—instead always making vocal choices that honor her instrument's considerable capacities.
Robust praise to Maestro Vivian Ip for marshalling her forces with a balance of rigor and flexibility that benefited the orchestra, chorus, soloists, and Bellini!
Reference recordings from a more outspoken operatic era:
Bellini etched in hair-trigger verismo accents, La Burzio starting off with mezzevoci and eventually divulging chest resonance («quell'innocente età»; the closing «ascenderò»), extended top tones, and a full inventory of sobs.
«Meco all'altar di Venere»: Francesco Merli (1935)
One of the first Calafs, famous for Otello, a classic tenore robusto yet without any hesitation in phonation: the leaps to high A, B-flat, and C sing and ping with the quickness!
(Additionally mentioning this heartfelt remembrance of La Stignani from her daughter-in-law: