Second cast “Norma” proves first class in Palm Beach

By Greg Stepanich

In bel canto, unlike other operatic genres in which music can take a secondary role to the action, it’s critical that the singing be strong enough to carry the audience through what often are the thinnest of plots and the plainest of harmonic structures.

In Jennifer Check and Wendy Bryn Harmer, Palm Beach Opera has the singers it needs to bring off Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, and bring it off so well that the opera’s  static moments, given over to rudimentary accompaniments subordinated to melody and vocal display, start to look like attributes instead of weaknesses. Check, as Norma, and Harmer, as Adalgisa, simply fill the hall with their huge voices, and the result is a high-powered, thrilling  Norma that excites and exhilarates.

The first cast of the Palm Beach production, which appeared Friday night and will appear this afternoon, was notable for the Adalgisa of Ruth Ann Swenson, who sang her Norma, an underpowered Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, right off the stage of the Kravis Center. But Saturday night’s second cast (which repeats Monday afternoon) puts the whole first cast well into the shade, and they are the cast to see if you want to get some sense of what this opera, and bel canto in general, is all about.

Check is an imposing presence from her first entrance to her last exit as she strides up to the funeral pyre for a date with immolation. Her voice is enormous, with great reserves of power that became evident in the Casta Diva, when as she rose into the higher registers she did so on a wave of sound that went from whisper to titanic, laying undisputed claim to the aria while pinning the ears of the audience back at the same time.

But it was not an overblown performance of the cavatina; it was a demonstration of fine vocal control and the expressive use to which it can be put. This was a big, beautiful Casta Diva, lovingly shaped even though Check took an illicit quick breath at the end of the opening phrase the first time around (but not the second). Even more importantly, she brought her abilities of control to the jealous part of her character, spitting out lines like Tremi tu? E per chi? (Are you trembling? For whom?) with a chilling kind of wounded menace that was most effective.

Check’s voice also has a hard cutting edge that can be heard above a big pit orchestra and dozens of other people on stage going all out, and that helped make her Norma a dominant figure in addition to great fun to listen to. Her voice also showed no signs whatever of fatigue or strain; she sang the closing bars with the same strength she offered at the beginning.

And Harmer’s voice actually might be even better. It has all the hugeness and majesty of Check’s voice, but with an extra fullness and warmth that made it more engaging. This also is a large voice in the bloom of youth, and Harmer showed she could raise the roof with one line – Io l’obbliai (I have forgotten it) – and then sing marvelously well in duet with Check (especially in Act II’s Si, fino all’ore estreme) and in her heated exchanges with Pollione.

Harmer also showed an exceptional technical command throughout her register, which was untroubled and gigantic at the top, and crystal clear and centered at the very bottom.  This is a singer of great natural gifts who has disciplined it with excellent training that she has applied with diligence. You don’t get that kind of finish throughout the voice without working hard at it.

As Pollione, Allan Glassman ran intro trouble early on with a blown high C at the climax of Meco all’altar di Venere, but he recovered and sang without any more such incidents. That’s good, because Glassman has an appealing lyric tenor, and like Check and Harmer, he brought dedication to his acting, showing believable infatuation with Adalgisa as she tries to spurn him and credible horror as Norma suggests she might use the sacred dagger on their children.

Aside from the bad note, Glassman sang well and with verve, though there was some coarsness at the edges of some of the higher notes. Still, he brought presence and weight to Pollione, a character who  never gets to show the side of him that makes him a feared enforcer of the Roman occupation.

But it was Check and Harmer who made this performance of the opera so memorable, and just to hear these two youthful, magnificent voices make their way with such seeming ease through Bellini’s prodigiously demanding writing was to be left almost giddy with excitement. And it was to get a better understanding in real terms of what the bel canto tradition is all about.

Greg Stepanich has covered classical music, theater and dance for 25 years at newspapers in Illinois, West Virginia and Florida. He worked for 10 years at The Palm Beach Post, where he was an assistant business editor and pilot of Classical Musings, a classical music blog. He now blogs for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper at, and writes a personal blog at He also works as a freelance writer and composer.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Second cast “Norma” proves first class in Palm Beach”

  1. Posted Jan 25, 2009 at 11:07 pm by Bart Birdsall

    I thought Check was terrific too. She had a fiery temperament and a wonderful voice. She sang the ends of the phrases in Casta Diva softly, even sang phrases during the recitative (“Pace v’intimo!”) softly, and she sang a gorgeous messa di voce for “Son io” when Norma confesses. This was a big surprise. When I read her bio before the opera began, I thought, “Just great! She’s sung mainly comprimario roles, and from the bio she sounds like a young singer beginning her career. She has no business taking on this Mount Everest role with such little experience!” But by the end of the night I was eating my words. I thought Check was riveting. Just wonderful! My only complaint is that she did not sing the trills during “Adalgisa fia punita….” but this is such a difficult thing to do and most singers can not do this phrase justice, b/c it is so hard to trill during those furious lines and do them so quickly. That is just being picky, but she satisfied me in this role. I left the theatre thinking, “I don’t believe it!” I have seen much more famous singers (Eaglen, Papian, and Guleghina) sing this role, and Check seemed to blow them out of the water! Very impressive!

  2. Posted Jan 28, 2009 at 10:11 pm by george

    This was my first on-stage Norma. Before I only listened to the broadcastings or played the records. It was the great evening. All cast was excellent (tenor’s difficulties with the first C excused). Jennifer Check owned the role. Only one thing; I think that the conductor should give the orchestra a little (I mean a litte as very little) faster tempo to better express angry feeling of protagonists in powerfull scenes of this performance.

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Sun Jan 25, 2009
at 12:34 pm