Grand singing in SFO’s “Norma” rises above baffling staging

September 12, 2014
Sondra Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton in Bellini's "Norma" at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Sondra Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton in Bellini’s “Norma” at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Finally—Norma, the forestry version.

San Francisco Opera’s batting average has been highly variable with its new productions in recent seasons. Unfortunately, such was the case once again with its revisionist take on Bellini’s Norma Wednesday night. Fortunately, some first-class singing elevated what was a baffling and, at times, tedious show.

With its sacred mistletoe, Druid cults, improbable character motivation and general silliness, Norma virtually defines the ludicrous extremes of opera, bel canto in particular. What keeps the work alive is the richness and variety of Bellini’s music from its rousing choruses to soaring duets and stunningly beautiful arias.

The Kevin Newbury-David Korins staging—a coproduction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, and Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company—dispenses with the usual outdoor milieu of sacred groves and magical starry nights. Instead, the entire opera is moved indoors to a unit set that looks like a massive lumber warehouse with vast wooden doors through which are glimpsed the bare trees of winter and falling snow. A chopped-down tree hangs horizontally over the set.

The conceit apparently aims to plumb the Roman origins of the ancient Gaul locale but misfires completely. The two steer heads on either side of the tall columns and the massive skeleton of a bull, which looms distractingly over the final scene, seem less like a manifestation of ancient Celtic myth then a billboard ad for a Texas steakhouse chain. The tiny revolving wooden hut that houses Norma’s two sons is rolled on and off so often by stagehands, one wonders if this was a timely addition to the just-settled union contract.

Likewise, Jessica Jahn’s costuming aims to recreate a cool Game of Thrones mix of the ancient and modern but largely fails, missing the clever style and audacity of the HBO series designers. The worst conceit is the glam gowns and platinum blond wig for Sondra Radvanovsky’s Norma, which, far from seeming timeless, suggests a 1920s silver screen starlet. One is reminded of Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, to the extent that when Pollione enters, you half expect Norma to exclaim, “I can’t stand ‘im!”

Fortunately, the singing served Bellini’s score better than the misconceived production. Norma is a fairly recent addition to Sondra Radvanovsky’s repertory and one didn’t get the sense that the Druid priestess was a role she was yet fully comfortable with. It makes sense to take a different tack than the usual pensive and angry woman, broken-hearted over her lover Pollione’s dalliance with her vestral sister Adalgisa. But Radvanovsky’s smiling, laughing and twirling about at moments of high drama just looked bizarre, making her seem unhinged rather than more fully human.

Vocally, the soprano was much more impressive. One would have liked more of the elegance and dynamic shading she brought to “Casta diva” yet if the emotional connection wasn’t always manifest, Radvanovsky’s gleaming tone and agility were often thrilling, sailing through the coloratura, roulades and fireworks with striking technical ease.

San Francisco audiences caught a break with their Adalgisa. With Daveda Karanas withdrawing from the production, the role of Norma’s romantic rival was taken by Jamie Barton, and the young mezzo of the moment made a spectacular company debut. The Cardiff Singer of the World winner showed once again that she is the real thing. A poised and sensitive actress, she deployed her plush, wide-ranging mezzo with infinite ease of production, soaring in her duets and ranging from deep chest tones up to surprising high notes on top. Barton was always credible dramatically, even in the most absurd moments.

Though he appeared to tire somewhat near the end of the evening, Marco Berti made the weak two-timing Pollione less of a tool than usual. His vocalism veered too often to the can belto side of things, yet Berti was a strong vocal presence, the tenor agile in the cabalettas and showing vibrant high notes.

As Oroveso, Christian Van Horn got the best of the costuming—with his shaved head, face tattoo and open black jacket one could mistake him for the owner of a local alternative music club. Van Horn’s capacious yet flexible bass-baritone made the most of his solo moments, easily riding over the men’s warlike choruses. Too bad he wasn’t cast as the Reverend Blitch in the company’s concurrent production of Susannah.

Nicola Luisotti’s conducting was unfailingly vital yet centered largely on a brash and aggressive vehemence, too often missing out on the score’s interior moments and lyrical warmth. No complaints about Ian Robertson’s magnificent chorus, which sang with refined elegance and daunting power throughout.

Norma runs through September 30.

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