United States Bellini, Norma: Soloists, orchestra and chorus of San Francisco Opera, Nicola Luisotti (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 23.9.2014 (HS)
Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky
Adalgisa: Jamie Barton
Pollione: Russell Thomas
Oroveso: Christian Van Horn
Clotilda: Jacqueline Piccolino
Flavio: A.J. Glueckert
Director: Kevin Newbury
Set Designer: David Korins
Costume Designer: Jessica Jahn
Lighting Designer: D.M. Wood
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson
Norma, the eponymous Druid priestess in Bellini’s opera, should be a force of nature. She sings a paean to the moon, passionately loves the proconsul of the Roman army occupying her people, considers murdering her children by him to keep them from being taken away as slaves, and ultimate sacrifices herself for the good of others. It’s a cauldron of emotions, which the composer captured in what many consider the pinnacle of dramatic bel canto opera. The most famous music caresses the ear with long, ever-billowing melodic lines, but it also seethes with fiery duets and orchestral punches.
From a musical standpoint, San Francisco Opera’s current production hits home run after home run, with glorious and individualistic singing, and surging power in the orchestra. Unfortunately, the staging side provides little to enhance the drama. The result, seen Tuesday in the fifth of seven performances, is a treat for the ears and a blight for the eyes.
On the plus side, let’s start with Sondra Radvanovsky, who triumphed in the title role earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. With supernatural control of her turbojet voice, she can float gossamer phrases on breaths that never seem to run out of air and push the throttle to unleash powerful phrases of crashing dramatic intensity. Pinpoint intonation and the ability to adjust dynamics at will bring out Bellini’s majestic writing for soprano. The only cavil is a kind of smeary coloratura. Fortunately Norma isn’t called upon to execute too much of that, but it would have been nice to hear every note in the descending cascades of grace notes when they did appear. ”Casta diva,” her Act I song to the moon, was nothing short of ravishing, surprising everyone with sudden changes in dynamics without losing perfection of sound.
Late replacements, both making company debuts, triumphed in the two other starring roles. Mezzo soprano Jamie Barton, who sang with Radvanovsky in New York, was announced as the replacement for Daveda Karenas as Adalgisa only nine days before the season opener. And tenor Russell Thomas, the understudy for Marco Berti as Pollione and a recent alumnus of the Metropolitan Opera’s development program, stepped in after only two performances.
Barton is a phenom, with a plush-textured, burnished, focused sound that feels seamless from the bottom to the extended top of her range. Though not quite as loud as Radvanovsky, she provided an ideal contrast. The qualities of her voice and her stage demeanor conveyed the innocence of the character and her anguish when she found herself in deep water dramatically. She has the full tool kit for bel canto, including precise but smoothly articulated coloratura made apparent in her opening aria, “Va crudele,” and in her duets with Radvanosky, especially the exquisite “Mira, o Norma” in Act II.
Thomas deployed a plangent tenor sound, rock solid intonation and, despite a costume that made him look like a hunchback, a formidable presence as the Roman consul who causes Norma’s and Adalgisa’s personal distress.
Luisotti, for his part, revved up a potent sound from the orchestra, enunciating the instrumental sections with appropriate vigor, although in climaxes the sound was sometimes too potent for the voices, even Radvanovsky’s. If the slower sections seemed to lag a bit too leniently, robbing the music of the pulse needed to make it flow freely, for the most part the tissue of the instrumental-vocal teamwork held together nicely.
Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn got off to an unfocused start as Oroveso, but by his Act II aria the sound was flowing with more power. Soprano Jacqueline Piccolino (as Clotilda, Norma’s maid) and tenor A.J. Glueckert (as Flavio, Pollione’s buddy), both current Adler Fellows in the company’s development program, dispatched their scenes well.
The glaring problem with this production was the staging. In what looked like a back-lot warehouse holding extra sets from “Game of Thrones,” a sparkly leafless tree hung from the rafters, and the forest of similar shiny trunks could be seen diminishing in numbers beyond the enormous trellis-like gate that occasionally lifted. Norma’s costume looked like a reject for the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Rickety carts, a rumbling movable wooden platform and people hauling white slats that came together in the finale to form a gigantic effigy bull, served no obvious purpose. The chorus, which added robust tutti to the proceedings, milled aimlessly about the stage with little visual intent.
Either director Kevin Newbury elected to stay out the singers’ way, or he had no useful ideas for making the scenes come to life, but he pretty much left it up to the individuals to express what they could vocally and with their own presence. In the end, therefore, this was a Norma that was all about the music, and with singing from Radvandovsky, Barton and Thomas, complaints about the staging seem almost beside the point.