Monday, September 15, 2014

Personal Reasons for Loving Norma

The bel canto opera by Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, about a Druid priestess who falls in love with a Roman imperialist general, and is then dumped for a younger Druid vestal virgin, opened the San Francisco Opera season a couple of Fridays ago. Opening Night of the Season audiences are famously terrible, giving no energy back to anybody onstage, because their interests tend to lie more with money than music. I went to the show at its second performance on a Wednesday evening, standing room in the balcony, with OperaVision screens left and right.

Norma is the greatest musical work of Bellini and the entire bel canto period of early 19th century Italian opera, with one extraordinary tune after another. Like Bizet and his Carmen, Bellini died young though his music has survived through every fashion of the last two centuries. However, unlike Carmen, which is fairly easy to cast well, Norma is virtually impossible to cast, as it requires the supreme singers and actors in the world and barely gives any of them a break, particularly the title character.

Carmen has a very sturdy modern story, while Norma is from another era in dramaturgy altogether, though I love its libretto. For all the many absurdities, such as Norma's secret two children by her Roman lover hiding in the forest, the proto-feminist duets where the two sopranos are supportive rather than rivals are still politically revolutionary and musically unparalleled. And even though the tenor is an utter cad, he ends up realizing what a sublime woman Norma is by the end, and eventually does the right thing in a blazing finale.

San Francisco Opera Director David Gockley announced a week before the opening that the originally cast Daveda Karanas as Adalgisa had left the cast for "personal reasons," and she was replaced by the young sensation Jamie Barton before opening night. At the Wednesday performance, I left before the finale because I couldn't stand the off-pitch Italian tenor of Marco Berti. However, Gockley must be psychic, and two days later Berti also left the cast for "personal reasons" and was replaced by the young American tenor Russell Thomas. The latter singer made his debut at the third performance on a Sunday matinee, and finally all the pieces for a perfect cast were in place.

This is probably the best sounding Norma you could hear in an opera house in the world right now, so make sure you go to one of the final four performances which are selling fast because I'm not the only one putting the word out. Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma falls more on the harshly dramatic Maria Callas spectrum than perfectly sung Joan Sutherland, but it's a very, very good performance. On Sunday, her voice cracked and disappeared altogether two or three times in the last 20 minutes of the show, but it actually made her sound more vulnerable within a very controlled performance. I've heard legendary singers as Adalgisa over the decades, from Fiorenza Cossotto to Marilyn Horne, and Jamie Barton is even better than those formidable ladies. "Sing anything," you wanted to cry, because she has a voice that sounds like a young Jessye Norman, rich and creamy and full of power. Thomas as the Roman cad was so wonderful that it was the first time I have ever sympathized with the character. The three singers were having a sensational time on Sunday weaving their voices in and out of each other's, and the audience offered a perfect mixture of awed silence and wild ovations in response.

The production directed by Kevin Newbury is mostly ridiculous, but serviceable, and compared to SF Opera's last ugly Norma set with a burnt out forest, it was a theatrical marvel. The production is set in some imaginary Druid warehouse, with stagehands carrying and wheeling on weird pieces of furniture all evening long. When this show moves on to Chicago, Toronto and Barcelona, somebody should jettison the singing of Norma's great opening aria, Casta Diva, on top of what looks to be a Druid cherrypicker, because the sound is not good and it looks totally ridiculous. Otherwise, keep the cast as is, which is soon to be legendary on its own.

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