For the first time in the 92-year old history of the San Francisco Opera, Bellini’s “Norma” was chosen to launch the company’s Fall season. The role of Norma, the Druid priestess whose secret affair with a Roman proconsul has produced two children, is considered a pinnacle of early 19th century bel canto Italian opera.
Illinois soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (whose arresting performances in the varied styles of Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini operas are reported in my reviews hyperlinked below) deserves to be listed with the great Normas of history.
Since “Norma” was never regularly performed at the San Francisco Opera before 1972, I have seen every Norma to sing here since that date. The War Memorial Opera House stage has been witness to the lush vocalism of Joan Sutherland’s Norma and the ferocious intensity of the Norma of Shirley Verrett, but in my experience no artist has so effectively mastered both the vocal and dramatic challenges of the role as Radvanovsky.
[Below: Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
A new production was mounted for Radvanovsky, conceived and staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins and costumes by Jessica Jahn, a production inspired by current research into the archaeology and mythology of the Druid cultures of Roman-occupied ancient Gaul.
I felt production and staging enhanced the drama inherent in the work. However, since I am scheduled to review two San Francisco Opera performances of this season’s “Norma”, I will devote more time to the production in the second review.
[Below: Norma (Sondra Radvanovsky, below, right) and Pollione (Marco Berti, below, left) prepare to die together in a ritual fire; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Norma is the second operatic role for Radvanovsky at the San Francisco Opera. Her debut, as Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” was also the debut of Conductor Nicola Luisotti in his role as San Francisco Opera Music Director. (He appeared as a guest conductor in the 2005 and 2008 seasons.)
Luisotti conducted brilliantly, showing how completely he has bonded with the excellent San Francisco Opera Orchestra.
Reuniting with Luisotti and Radvanovsky was another veteran of the “Trovatore”, Italian tenor Marco Berti, as Norma’s secret husband, Pollione.
Looking trim and handling Pollione’s musical line with ease, he showed a side of his artistry for which he is often unappreciated – that he can be a convincing actor.
[Below: Tenor Marco Berti as Pollione; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Adalgisa, the object of Pollione’a betrayal of his commitment to Norma, was sung by American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Replacing a colleague at a late date, she sang beautifully, with a gleaming top and enough strength in the lower register to remind one of a young Marilyn Horne.
Barton also had the ability (a necessity of any Adalgisa) of being able to sing the brilliant coloratura passages in her second act cabaletta in harmony with Norma.
[Below: American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Adalgisa; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The supporting cast was strong. Christian Van Horn was Oroveso, A. J. Glueckert was Flavio and Jacqueline Piccolino was Clotilde. I suspect that Oliver Kuntz and Miles Sperske, endearing as Norma’s and Pollione’s two children, would be strong contenders for any award for “best performance by a child in an opera” being considered.
[Below: Oroveso (Christian Van Horn, tallest man, front center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In a welcome departure from tradition, each of the choristers were clothed in costumes (and face and body markings) that suggested they were individual warriors rather than a single choral mass.
I strongly recommend this production for the performance of Sondra Radvanovsky (itself worth the ticket price), and the strength of her supporting cast, of Nicola Luisotti’s conducting and the excellence of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
For my reviews of Radvanovsky performances in Donizetti operas, see: Sondra Radvanovsky’s Astounding Virgin Queen in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” – Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, April 25, 2014, and also,
For my reviews of Radvanovsky performances in Verdi operatic works, see: Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lopardo, Anger Star in Conlon-led Verdi “Requiem” – San Francisco Symphony, October 22, 2011, and also,
For my review os Radvanovsky performances in Puccini operas, see: Sondra Radvanovsky is a Radiant, Transcendent Tosca – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2013, and also,
For further discussions of this “Norma” and other Normas at the War Memorial Opera House, see my new Facebook “Opera Warhorses” site.