Geneva Anderson digs into art

Bellini’s glorious “Norma” opens San Francisco Opera’s 92nd season

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera.  Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. “Norma” marks Radvanovsky’s second SFO appearance. She debuted as Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in 2009, which was also Conductor Nicola Luisotti’s debut as SFO Music Director. Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

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 share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Image: Cory Weaver

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Image: Cory Weaver

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

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review–“The Beautiful Person” (“La Belle Personne”) even the angst of teen love plays better in French, San Francisco Film Society, Sept 4-10, 2009

Lea Seydoux as "Junie," the new girl in class in "La Belle Personne"

Léa Seydoux as "Junie," the new girl in class in Christophe Honoré's "La Belle Personne"

 “The Beautiful Person,” set in Paris, in an upscale high-school, made me contemplate the unthinkable—if I ever had to do high-school over again, how would it go?  How would I react to the various opportunities—amorous and otherwise– that unfold?  Loosely inspired by the scandalous 17th century novel La Princesse de Cleves by Madame de La Fayette, director Christophe Honoré (“Ma mère,” “Love Songs”) continues his exploration of French romantic intrigue.  Instead of Parisian aristocracy in the court of Henry II, Honoré and co-writer Gilles Taurand set their action in contemporary Paris in an upscale high school.  The students are interesting, beautiful, and unkempt– the teachers too–and they explore love and passion while trying to stay engaged with what seems a very loosely regimented but awesome program of poetry, humanities, Italian, English and math.  Junie (Léa Seydoux, “The Last Mistress”) is the new girl at school, a transfer student, who has come to live with her cousin Matthias just after the death of her mother.  Voluptuous, alabaster-skinned, with a tragic air, she becomes the object of male attention and is quickly welcomed into Matthias’ clique of school friends.  

Mild-mannered Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), falls hard for her and their first conversation sets up a loose plot.  Otto tells her that Junie is also Néron’s tormentor in Racine’s 17th  century tragic play “Brittancus” and they discuss how it ends badly for Junie who takes vows and never marries.  Later, egged on by his friends, Otto professes his love to Junie.  She tells him what she needs “Don’t lie to me and look after me, always.”   Otto agrees.  Junie French kisses him publicly in the school hall and the two become an item.   Junie is bursting with magnetic mystique ..she is photographed in the hallway by a student who is an amateur photographer; she is noticed by women as well.   At one point in the film, an evocative song on a jukebox plays lyrics that compliment what is going on throughout the film–  “She was so pretty that I didn’t dare love her.”

 When newbie Junie arrives in Italian class, a student is in the midst of a presentation about Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.   Junie sits down by the teacher Mr. Nemour (Louis Garrel) and the two eye each other nervously.  She abruptly walks out, in tears, during Maria Callas’ spellbinding aria, leaving her books behind.  After this brief encounter, Mr. Nemour too falls hard for Junie and even steals a picture of her from her notebook.  Nemour, a dark-eyed dreamy lothario, who barely looks like he is out of high school, is in the midst of two affairs–one with a colleague (Florence Perin) and the other with a student Catherine (Anaïs Demoustier).   Nemours breaks it off with both women and confesses his love for Junie to his colleague who advises him that “loving a student is too easy.”  “Not this one” Nemours replies “I’m a total love-sick mess.”  To which his friend insighftfully replies “You seem more disappointed in love than in the concept of love at first sight.”   Indeed the complexity, no mess, that ensues is overwhelming.

Louis Garrel and Lea Seydoux in Christophe Honore's "La Belle Personne"

Louis Garrel and Léa Seydoux in Christophe Honoré's "La Belle Personne"

 We get subtle hints that stalwart Junie is falling for Nemour but trying hard not to.  She is terribly afraid of giving in to what she assumes will be a grand, once in a life-time love and  denies herself Nemour but snacks on safe love with endearing Otto.  Meanwhile, a subplot emerges involving a love letter that is passed around and mistakenly thought to be Nemour’s but really involves Junie’s cousin Matthias (Esteban Carvajal-Alegria) and his affair with fellow student Martin (Martin Siméon).  Mathias has hidden his homosexuality and, in addition to Martin, has carried on with another student Henri (Simon Truxillo) who is in love with him and very vindictive.  The letter threatens to expose everything if the correct author and intended recipient are revealed.   But it’s all a mess.  The letter changes hands several times and when Junie reads it, she assumes that Nemour has written it to her and takes actions that push this volatile group into certain doom.

 This has all the makings of a great drama but falls short.  The performances of the lead characters lack real depth and it’s very hard to get inside their heads, with the exception of Otto.  Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel are enthralling to look at…and, based on looks alone, we can certainly envision them in bed together, but how would that happen?  Their conversation is basically flat and they fail to connect naturally or with any tenderness…time after time.  Junie is cold or indifferent, sending Nemour into confusion after confusion.  By the time they finally come to an understanding, it is too late.  And even when it is too late, we don’t get any feeling of implosion.  Junie’s constraint, fear of succumbing to her passion, is what needs to be further explored.  The potential is there but there’s no spark.  Nicole (Chantal Neuwirth), a maternal and wise older woman who works at the local café where they all hang-out, takes a shine to Junie, and delivers one of the most authentic, but too brief, performances in the film.   The cinematography is marvelous, capturing gray, drizzly Paris and some candid close-ups.  The sountrack ranges from opera to Nick Drake , the lyrics tracking or accentuating the action in the film.  

Screens Sundance Kabuki Theatre, September 4-10, 2009: 2:05 pm, 4:05 pm, 7:15 pm, 9:35 pm. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 11:40 am.

August 30, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment