Bellini’s glorious “Norma” opens San Francisco Opera’s 92nd season
Friday evening’s “Norma,” San Francisco Opera’s season opener, with soprano Sandra Radvanovsky as Norma, was an evening of firsts—my first time attending on SFO’s big gala night and my first live performance of Bellini’s “Norma.” And, I was lucky enough to score tickets in the 5th row, close enough to see without even my glasses, also a first. I had prepped most of the week with YouTube recordings of the great Normas—Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland—and was excited to see how Radvanovsky, rumored to stand in their lauded company, would measure up. Norma is a Druid high princess in Roman-occupied Gaul who has secretly been sleeping with the enemy— a Roman procounsel, Pollione, and has two illegitimate children as a result. Pollione has grown tired of Norma and now has his eyes set on Adalgisa, a young Druid priestess whom Norma regards as a friend. The opera is considered to be the gold-standard of early 19th century bel canto Italian opera.
SFO’s new production is conceived and staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins and costumes by Jessica Jahn. Newbury debuted at SFO in 2103 directing the world premiere flop, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. (ARThound wrote about the gorgeous Michael Schwab poster that accompanied the opera.) Billed as being “rooted in the stone age with a contemporary slant,” the production is inspired by contemporary research on the archaeology and mythology of the Druid cultures of Roman-occupied ancient Gaul. With the SFO’s always effervescent Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, in the pit, the orchestra delivered a luminous performance with outstanding woodwind solos.
The British music critic, Andrew Porter, who wrote so insightfully for the New Yorker for some thirty years, said the role of Norma: “calls for power; grace in slow cantilena; pure, fluent coloratura; stamina; tones both tender and violent; force and intensity of verbal declamation; and a commanding stage presence.” Joan Sutherland said of the role “[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine.”
By all measures, Radvanovsky was an astounding Norma. She has a radiant stage presence and a powerful voice, full of sparkling color. The minute she began singing, I immediately liked her velvety tone and her innate musicality, especially her ability to convey tenderness and vulnerability. On Saturday, though, there were some issues with her top range and extended notes. On a handful of occasions during the three hour marathon, her voice broke or became scratchy. And, importantly, that forceful gale wind dynamism and power that we associate with the hypnotic Normas, was not there. From all I’ve read, she’s capable of it and I am sure it will emerge in subsequent performances. Her “Casta Diva,” the famous first act cavatina, a prayer to the moon goddess, asking for peace, was gorgeous but I had the impression that this finely-tuned Ferrari had one more gear that was not present in this rendition. She’s so passionate and immersed in the role though and so secure and nimble in her upper middle range that it was pure pleasure to both listen to her and watch her. I particularly enjoyed her conflicted “Oh non tremare” which completes the first act, where she slams Pollione for his betrayal and exhibited her exceptional range. The audience went wild over her “Casta Diva” and carried its ebullience to the funeral pyre (which came some three hours later and was a quick unsatisfying flash.)
They were equally enthusiastic over mezzo soprano Jamie Barton’s inspired Adalgisa. Barton, in her SFO debut, seemed completely at ease in the difficult role and her nimble voice was warm and alluring. Barton won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has gone on to impress audiences ever since. She so believably conveyed the dramatic emotional twists that come with loving a man who is also her friend and superior’s lover that my eyes gravitated constantly to her, troubled pure soul that she was. We’ve all felt the tug of dangerous love and had to make difficult choices between loyalty and following your heart and they played out with compelling drama on Friday. The shivers in this “Norma” were evoked by the girl power moments—by the lush lyricism of Radvanovsky and Barton’s voices blending in the duos—rather than by Norma’s solos of torment and passion.
Italian tenor Marco Berti delivered a wonderful Pollione and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sang Oroveso with a power that matched his height. We’ll be seeing a lot of Van Horn this season as he appears as Count Ribbing (“Un Ballo in Maschera”), Alidoro (“La Cenerentola”), Colline (“La Bohème”), and Narbal (“Les Troyens”).
David Korins’ set design, which many found confounding, had a single silvery snow-covered tree trunk elegantly hovering from chains in front of an enormous gray wall as a representation of the Druid forest. Blustery snowfall was visible through the doors evoking a Druid winter wonderland. Towards the end of the opera, a giant Trojan horse-like creature slowly overtook the stage and its crescent-shaped horn descended from the sky until it landed in place on its head. The funeral pyre was a mere flash in the pan. Jessica Jahn’s costumes were unfathomable to me—they appeared to come from several different eras and, with the exception of Radvanovsky’s, were unflattering, uninteresting and unattractive.
After the performance, drowsy couples exited the opera house raving about losing themselves in the music and comparing the great divas who have defined Norma. There was a warm buzz about Jamie Barton. SFO’s 92nd season was off to a brilliant start.
Run-time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with one intermission
Details: There are six remaining performances of “Norma”—Wednesday, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM, Sun, Sept 14 at 2 PM, Friday, Sept 19 at 7:30 PM, Tuesday, Sept 23 at 7:30 PM, Saturday, Sept 27 at 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept 30 at 7:30 PM Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx
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