Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Second Look: “Norma” at the San Francisco Opera – September 14, 2014

September 16th, 2014

My review of the opening night of the San Francisco Opera 2014-15 season (and of its new production of Bellini’s “Norma”) was posted a week ago [See Review: Sondra Radvanovsky’s Stunning Season Opening “Norma” – San Francisco Opera, September 5, 2014.]

In that review I had praised the artistry of the Norma, Sondra Radvanovsky, and the Adalgisa, Jamie Barton, who continued to impress me on second hearing.


I had promised more extensive comments on the new production itself after I attended the third performance (a Sunday matinee). Scheduling a second review was propitious, because there was an unexpected cast change, the tenor Marco Berti, whose performance I had also admired, canceling all of his remaining San Francisco Opera Polliones.

Replacing Berti was Russell Thomas, who displayed a pleasing voice of power, appropriate the dramatic role of Pollione – opera composer Bellini’s contribution to the core spinto tenor repertory.

[Below: Tenor Russell Thomas, who assumed the role of Pollione; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]



Nicola Luisotti’s Conducting

With any world-class production of “Norma” –  and San Francisco Opera’s 2014 mounting was unquestionably of international rank – there is much to hear and see. The vocal performances, the stage action and choral interludes that alternate calm and fury are all worthy of extensive remarks.

Central to everything in this opera is the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and its conductor, San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti.

Any Luisotti performance is a work of art. It’s, of course, the results of his conducting style that make a Luisotti performance so magical. Yet, his impassioned performance at the podium is so awe-inspiring that one could imagine a future San Francisco Opera DVD that has, as a bonus addition to an opera telecast, seeing the entire opera from the point of view of the members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra watching Luisotti at the podium.

“Norma” Productions in San Francisco

Generally, one only produces “Norma” because you have highly accomplished singers for the three principal roles – Norma, Adalgisa and Pollione. However, if one approaches the opera solely as an opportunity to show off the vocal bravura, one misses the point that “Norma” has a dramatically valid plot, one involving familiar themes of a mother, her children, her unfaithful husband, and a friend she learns is “the other woman”.  But this domestic drama is one that is set is an ancient world of conflict between Druids and Romans.

There have been three productions of “Norma” in the history of San Francisco Opera performance. One, owned by Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, seen in San Francisco in Fall 2005 can be summarized by a two-sentence excerpt from my review: “The sets were not controversial. As far as I can determine, they were universally condemned.” [see Norma November 21, 2005 San Francisco].

For the almost three decades between 1972 and 1998, San Francisco’s “Norma” production had been the one created by Argentine stage director Tito Capobianco and Argentine set designer Jose Varona. Its central idea was the representation of a enormous oak tree whose crown spread across the entire stage and whose base consisted of pathways for the chorus to move en masse.

The Newbury – Korins Production

[Below: Sondra Radvanovsky walks among a grove of white trees; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


“Norma” is about love and disaffection portrayed against the hostile relationships of Druids and Romans in ancient times. Only two Romans appear during the opera – Pollione and his wing man Flavio. The chorus and all the other characters (except for the “stateless” children of Norma and Pollione) are Druids. Capobianco and Varona hinted at Druid religiosity in the oak references. Invoking the religious significant of oaks, is consistent with Felice Romani’s libretto.

However, Varona’s sets, like most in the history of “Norma” productions over the decades, had a rather passive view of the setting.

Newbury and Korins have taken a much more aggressive stand on the world’s current knowledge of Druid culture – considerably greater than known in the early 1830s when the opera was composed – but still relatively sparse. They have created sets that emphasize the weaponry which we know they possessed. But they have also inferred and sometimes invented elements of the Druid religion that are quite speculative.

[Below: Adalgisa (Jamie Barton, in blue gown, at back of stage) stands before the large doors of the entrance to the Druid enclosure; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


A particularly dramatic innovation is the concept that the Druids created large wicker cages representing white bulls through which they could practice human sacrifice through immolation – analogous, the production team suggests, to the much less lethal themes underlying modern “burning man” festivals.

The production team emphasis has evoked a druidology of trees, bull heads, weaponry and wicker images that is only in part imaginary (their imagination, they concede, inspired to a degree by the visual images prevalent on the HBO series Game of Thrones).

As an observer of many different  ways to interpret and represent the operas of the standard repertory, I have a personal rule for determining whether an innovative interpretation is defensible or not. I ask, is the interpretation in conflict with the opera’s story (i.e., does it depart from the opera’s plot?)

Details of the Production

In the case of the Newbury-Korins production, some of the trappings of older productions are gone – such as a monochromatic chorus filing in and out of the scene in formation – replaced, at least for the men’s choruses, by tattooed warriors who act as individuals. I think, rather than detracting from, that change enhances the drama.

[Below: Norma (Sondra Radvanovsky, bottom, center) inspects the wicker bull that is to encase a human sacrifice by fire; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Much is made of the preparations for the burning wicker bull that will surround a human sacrifice of a person or persons still to be named, but, in the end, it is Norma and Pollione who are destined to die in the flames.

In two of the images in which I suspect that opinions differ, the totem representing a large white white tree, part of a ritual in which Norma plays a central role,  is suspended above the Druids assembled below. In a second, a tiny household, in which the two boys born to Norma and Pollione are cared for by Norma’s servant Clotilde, is, at different times, spun about to reveal its exterior facade and interior furnishings.

[Below: a ritualized tree is suspended on high, while the interior of a small shack is visible to the audience; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco.]


Throughout the exposition of Druid images, whether they be based in scholarly research or imagination, Bellini’s music drives Romani’s plot relentlessly. All the images, even if one needs Newbury’s program notes for explanation, seem comprehensible. And, if some day we should uncover some incontrovertible evidence that describes all the rites the Druids did indeed practice, for all we know, they might be far stranger than anything out of Newbury’s and Korins’ imaginations.

Seeing the performance for the second time permits one to observe the stage business devised for the opera’s characters. One watches the Flavio of A. J. Gluekert, who not only inspects the shields and other weapons, but examines a small wicker model of a bull (whose larger version will become the funeral pyre for Norma and Pollione). Adalgisa seems confused by the model at a later time. (By then it has become a toy for two little boys that Adalgisa knows nothing about.)

The Druid rituals are often obscure, but, I believe, that is what they are intended to be. It seems to me that only Norma and Oroveso would be invested with the information as to what each element of the rituals might be. Adalgisa as a novitiate might know some more. Anything Pollione and Flavio would know would come from observation and  Pollione’s intimacy with Norma and Adalgisa.

None of us in the audience know as much about the Druid rituals (certainly not those that Newbury and Korins have conceived) as any of the principal characters, either Druid or Roman. But then, maybe that’s the point of the production.


The music is glorious, the artists perform the music as intended, and the production is absorbing, and never in conflict with the opera’s dramatic settings. I continue to recommend the San Francisco Opera production of “Norma” enthusiastically.



Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews