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Low-key `Daughter,' shining `Attila,' and disappointing `Norma'

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The theme of the summer season at the New York City Opera is bel canto, literally beautiful song or singing. Bellini's ``Norma'' is the supreme bel canto opera, usually the province only of the Metropolitan Opera and other premier houses. For the City Opera to tackle it without trying to compete on a singing level, something different must be done. Perhaps this is why Andrei Serban was brought in to direct. I have yet to see Mr. Serban do anything in opera that indicates he particularly cares for the art form. Also, I firmly believe that if ``Norma'' is not done with great singers and superb vocal actors, it should not be done at all. Unhappily, a sense that this opera is nothing unusual pervaded the Serban direction and much of Olivia Stapp's singing of the title role.

But first, the production. This ``Norma'' was not the fiasco Serban perpetrated on Puccini's ``Turandot'' for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in Los Angeles last summer. Nor did it have too many of the inanities that marked his assault on Verdi's ``La Traviata'' for the Juilliard School several seasons back. In fact, this ``Norma'' began rather promisingly. The staged overture offered a series of tableaux vivantes that presaged the plot progression of the opera. Pollione's aria put him into

the dream he was recounting. Norma's first aria, the first of many mighty hurdles in this terrifying role, was hauntingly presented at once as a public act of worship and Norma's own very private communication with her deity and her inner self.

Yet by this point, problems had already arisen. Pollione's dream-lighting did not vanish at the offstage trumpet fanfare -- the intrusion of reality. Norma, whose first entrance is particularly grand, had already been seen marching around in earlier scenes.

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