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Some operas are machines; some operas are vehicles. Load up Puccini’s La Bohème with a bunch of mediocre young singers and the piece will still get you where you want to go: Fueled by high-octane tunes and gaining extra mileage from its socko deathbed finale, it’s a smooth-running operatic machine. Massenet’s Don Quichotte, on the other hand, is a classic vehicle, written specifically for the remarkable early-20th-century singing actor Fyodor Chaliapin. Without Chaliapin in the driver’s seat, this pile of rusty, secondhand parts ain’t budgin’.

Bellini’s 1831 Norma, now receiving its first-ever Washington Opera production at DAR Constitution Hall, is that rare machine that’s also a vehicle. The score, a paradigm of bel canto style that influenced composers as far down the pike as Wagner, links melodic phrases into sentences and then into paragraphs, until a single musical thought has been spun into a seamless, continuously evolving discourse. This is mesmerizing music, and for listeners whose passion for opera concerns the voice, and the voice alone, Norma is the ultimate machine.

For those listeners, of course, it’s also the ultimate vehicle. The raptures and train wrecks in Normas past and present are endlessly debated in opera circles, and with good reason: The title role is a bitch to sing. What makes it so hard is not that it requires coloratura ornamentation and perilous high notes. It’s not that it necessitates commanding presence, a wide range, and strength in all registers. It’s not even that it calls for a good deal of soft, supple, controlled singing. It’s that the role demands all of the above, often in the same phrase. Given the fact that a single Bellinian phrase can stretch on and on—and that little matters such as breathing have to be masked to preserve the illusion of an unbroken musical line—it’s no surprise that the tally of woefully inadequate Normas is far more extensive than the shortlist of stellar ones.

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And that makes Hasmik Papian’s success in the title role for WashOp especially gratifying. Her soprano is remarkably even-voiced across an ample range, with a thrustful and gleaming core and a warmly attractive tonal finish. Scrupulous in vocal terms, she brings the drama to life through subtle shapings, colorings, and emphases within the line. That’s not to say she isn’t working hard up there: We can see the physical effort involved in generating volume in her lower register, in maneuvering through the coloratura, in placing and timing the most stratospheric high notes. But if we’re made more aware of the nuts-and-bolts difficulties in the music, and of the artist’s struggles to overcome them, that only intensifies our involvement in the process—and makes her accomplishment that much sweeter.

Maybe Papian as Norma lacks the incendiary drama and sheer glamour of Maria Callas, the astonishing technique and caramel tone of Joan Sutherland, or the ravishingly floated pianissimo notes of Montserrat Caballe. That doesn’t make her any less capable or satisfying as an interpreter of the role. Papian isn’t part of the cult of personality surrounding this opera—she’s just a terrific Norma.

WashOp has given Papian a solid cast to work with, right down to two promising young singers in small parts, Keri Alkema and Israel Lozano. In the piece’s second most important role, that of Norma’s sister Druid priestess and romantic rival, Adalgisa, Irina Mishura displays an attractive mezzo that melds beautifully with Papian’s in their lengthy duets. Adalgisa can be cast with a lyric soprano or a mezzo—and WashOp has found the best of both worlds in Mishura, who sounds as much soprano as mezzo with her incisive edge, brightly polished high notes, and easy command of the coloratura.

Tenor Richard Margison, as the Roman proconsul who fathered Norma’s kids but spends most of the opera putting the mack on Adalgisa, is fine, if frustrating. He’s got a hale-and-hearty voice (a couple of yelped high notes aside) with a handsome tone. But with clunky, prosaically delivered Italian, and a volume level set permanently at fortissimo, Margison is not the most sensitive of leading men, evincing zero sexual chemistry with either priestess. Still, he’s got that clarion ping in his voice that juices up the thrill factor in his big arias, and that counts for something.

Too bad there isn’t more in the score for the Druid leader Oroveso to sing. This character can become a windy bore in the wrong hands. But bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen makes such a splendidly smooth, weighty, oracular sound in the role, and he phrases with such intelligence, that were it not for Papian, he’d walk away with the show.

Papian and Ketelsen excepted, there isn’t a whole lot happening in the acting department here, and stage director Paolo Miccichè’s often pointless blocking and park-and-bark staging of the arias do the cast no favors. True, the plot is Medea lite. Norma threatens to murder her kids and immolate her rival to get back at her errant lover, but she never does. Instead, she confesses her own betrayal of the priestesses’ vow of chastity, stands by her man, and strides to the funeral pyre with him. (So it goes in early-19th-century opera.) Still, an astute director could take the story’s parade of emotionally fraught encounters and mine them for all their psychological worth.

Miccichè’s too busy with his slide show to worry much about psychology. Remember his WashOp Aida at DARCon last winter, with those Eurotrash costumes that turned the evening into a three-hour campfest, and the hyperactive techno ballet of raised and lowered scrim panels that walled in the singers while shutting out the audience? Well, he’s up to his old tricks again—though, mercifully, to a far lesser degree. Panels noisily trundle down in front of the singers only rarely this time around, and, far more than in Aida, the staging of the principal singers and of the seemingly gargantuan chorus opens creatively and democratically to all sides of the audience.

Though arias and duets are mostly left free of the barrage of projected images that Miccichè and co-visual designer Patrick Watkinson have devised, a great deal of stage time is still dominated by moving projections, which seem even more frenzied than those in Aida. (At one point during the performance I attended, I overheard a woman behind me say she was about to throw up.) It’s not a bad idea, on paper, to jazz up those static choruses with scenic movement, but in this production the eye is pulled too frequently away from the human drama onstage. Once again, Miccichè and Watkinson have a good collective eye for computer-generated images (ancient sculpture, lunar landscapes, plenty of Middle-earth iconography). But the images lack a cohesive, hieratic sweep or text-illuminating specificity. Not to mention the fact that all those bright, slickly shifted projections make a poor marriage with Alberto Spiazzi’s numbingly traditional, sword-and-sandal costumes.

Dazzling though all this son et lumière can be, it would be nice to think that designers more sensitive to word and action and character might find a berth at the renovated Kennedy Center Opera House when the company returns there in March. That would free up Miccichè to continue his work at the sprawling, outdoor European music festivals that pepper his résumé—which undoubtedly benefit more from his plus-size aesthetic.

The guy WashOp needs to hang on to is conductor Emmanuel Villaume. It’s fascinating to hear what a huge sound the Washington Opera Orchestra can make in DARCon (even in a work as modestly scored as this one) when Heinz Fricke is not on the podium. Villaume’s whiplash accents and surgingly Romantic phrasing create more excitement per square inch than any 20 of Micciché’s graphics. Yet his support of the singers is as sensitive and illuminating as could be wished for. And thanks not only to his fine ear for nuance, but also his crystal-clear baton technique, the stage and pit are consistently in sync.

Villaume reminds us what a finely tuned machine Bellini’s Norma is. Papian never lets us forget it’s her vehicle, and she rides it for all it’s worth. Is it really so surprising that Miccichè winds up the poor slob left by the side of the road, jumping up and down and waving? CP