Norma November 21, 2005 San Francisco

In the final days of Pamela Rosenberg’s controversial tenure as General Director of the San Francisco Opera, a production of Bellini’s “Norma” new to San Francisco was mounted, starring Catherine Naglestad as Norma, Irene Mishura as Adalgisa, Zoran Todorovich as Pollione, and Attila Jun as Oroveso.

The production and performance, in the context of the performance history of Bellini’s masterwork at the War Memorial Opera House (which, excepting a single performance in 1937, began in 1972) is considered here.

[Below: Catherine Naglestad as Norma. Edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Recent History of “Norma” in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera’s 1972 production Bellini’s “Norma”, created for Joan Sutherland, appearing with Huguette Tourangeau and John Alexander, highlighted a massive oak that overarched processional ramps through which Druid priestesses and soldiers marched. Sutherland re-appeared in the production a decade later in a truly historic cast in which Marilyn Horne was Adalgisa, Ermanno Mauro was Pollione and Ezio Flagello was Oroveso.
In 1975, Montserrat Caballe was to sing it with Tatiana Troyanos as Adalgisa, but illness prevented Caballe’s appearance, and Rita Hunter and Christina Deutekom each substituted for her.
Grace Bumbry was 1978’s Norma, in a performance that showed “Norma’s” dramatic potential. The old oak, witness to memorable performances from Sutherland, Horne and Troyanos, and creditable performances from the others mentioned, exemplified the rule that you mounted the opera when you had world-class divas on hand.
After being treated to another revival for Carol Vaness and Rossini specialist Anna Caterina Antonacci as the elder and younger priestesses grieving over Michael Sylvester as Pollione, the venerable production apparently was scrapped. “Scrap” also is the operative word for the 2005 production borrowed from Toronto.

San Francisco Opera’s 1972 production Bellini’s “Norma”, created for Joan Sutherland, appearing with Huguette Tourangeau and John Alexander, highlighted a massive oak that overarched processional ramps through which Druid priestesses and soldiers marched.

Sutherland re-appeared in the production a decade later in a truly historic cast in which Marilyn Horne was Adalgisa, Ermanno Mauro was Pollione and Ezio Flagello was Oroveso.

In 1975, Montserrat Caballe was to sing it with Tatiana Troyanos as Adalgisa, but illness prevented Caballe’s appearance, and Rita Hunter and Christina Deutekom each substituted for her.

Shirley Verrett was 1978’s Norma, in a performance that showed “Norma’s” dramatic potential. The old oak, witness to memorable performances from Sutherland, Horne and Troyanos, and creditable performances from the others mentioned, exemplified the rule that you mounted the opera when you had world-class divas on hand.

After being treated to another revival for Carol Vaness and Rossini specialist Anna Caterina Antonacci as the elder and younger priestesses grieving over Michael Sylvester as Pollione, the venerable production apparently was scrapped. “Scrap” also is the operative word for the 2005 production borrowed from Toronto.

“Norma” 2005

[Below: Attila Jun (Oroveso) with the Druids in the Allen Moyer conception of “Norma”.  Edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The 2005 production of “Norma” by Allen Moyer (who designed San Francisco Opera’s 2003 production of Virgil Thomson’s “The Mother of Us All”), is thankfully associated with the Canadian Opera Company rather than the San Francisco Opera.

Moyer’s production replaced 1972’s giant oak with scrap timber arranged in patterns, the underlying concept being that the Romans created environmental havoc on the Druids, although nothing in Felice Romani’s libretto alerts us to this concern.

The Norma was Catherine Naglestad, who was impressive earlier in the season in the title role of Handel’s “Rodelinda”, but less so as Nedda in “I Pagliacci” in 2003. The Adalgisa was Irina Mishura, making her Fall Season debut.

The Pollione was Zoran Todorovich, whose voice was too small for the 3200-seat War Memorial Opera House, but whose acting ability and general appearance did compensate to a degree for his lack of vocal weight.

It is obvious that the stage director, James Robinson, understands that Romani and Bellini created a dramatically valid opera, a fact often obscured in the excitement surrounding any revival of this opera for the world’s great divas. (San Francisco mounted Rossini’s “Semiramide” in 1981 for Caballe, Horne and James Morris, and the proposition that the Rossini opera was great drama was never an issue.)

Robinson was working with three principal singers in “Norma” who plausibly could represent an attractive woman who held dominion over a violent people, another attractive woman who unwittingly becomes her rival, and a military leader with the capacity to charm and seduce both women.

[Below: Irene Mishura as Adalgisa; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Naglestad and Mishura convincingly sang and acted the female roles, and Todorovich, in the critical first act trio after his duplicity is revealed, held his own. Two smaller parts, Pollione’s wing-man Flavio (Sean Panikkar) and Clotilde (Kimwana Doner), the caretaker for Norma’s children, were also well-sung and convincingly acted.

This permitted a “Norma” of successive intimate scenes – Pollione’s conversations with his confidante, Flavio, Norma’s with her confidante, Clotilde, Adalgisa’s two agitated conversations with Norma, the trio between the principals, and, ultimately, Norma’s personal sacrifice and its emotional impact on Pollione.

[Below: Zoran Todorovich as Pollione; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photographs, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The sets were not controversial. As far as I can determine, they were universally condemned. As to the Roman-Druid color added to the stage director, it was generally praiseworthy – a Roman soldier captured and killed at the beginning, whose body is defiled and then found by Pollione and Flavio and recovered by their men, Druid warriors (non-singing) clad only in loincloths pairing up, with each warrior couple smearing warpaint on the other’s body.

Thankfully, these extra-textual elements did not stray far from the story.

The Eurotricksters responsible for San Francisco Opera’s new production of “Forza del Destino” and so many other indefensible concepts during the six years of Pamela Rosenberg’s general management surely would have found ways to introduce outrageous concepts to “animate” this opera. “Norma” thankfully, despite indefensible sets, was mostly played straight.