Norma, the eighth of Bellini’s slim output of ten operas (compare to Rossini’s 38, Donizetti’s 65), is widely acknowledged as his masterpiece, a work in which he retained the melodic beauty and vocal elegance of thebel canto style, while transcending the often vapid drama of the bel canto tradition with solid characterizations accompanied by appropriate emotional intensity. The well-sculpted libretto by Bellini’s frequent collaborator, Felice Romani, undoubtedly played a significant role in drawing out the best of the composer.
Norma, high priestess of the Druids suffering under Roman occupation, has betrayed her people doubly: she has secretly borne two children by Pollione, the Roman proconsul, at once sleeping with the enemy and breaking her vows of chastity. Pollione, no pillar of virtue himself, has lost interest in Norma, his attention is now focused on the younger priestess, Adalgisa. The latter resists, but then succumbs to the dashing Roman.
Adalgisa, unaware of Norma’s liaison with Pollione, confesses to Norma that she has taken a lover. Norma, remembering her own susceptibility, forgives Adalgisa and releases her from her vows. But then Adalgisa names her lover, none other than the father of Norma’s sons, at which point the fickle miscreant himself shows up, leading to a trio in which Norma denounces Pollione and Adalgisa, herself having been deceived, casts him off as a traitor.
Norma, in a near-Medea moment, takes knife in hand, raising it against her sleeping sons, but she relents, instead deciding to entrust them to Adalgisa and take her own life. In one of the great duets of the repertoire, Adalgisa affirms her loyalty to Norma and says she will plead Norma’s case with Pollione. But Pollione is obdurate and Norma, enraged, calls the Gauls to war. Pollione is captured, Norma confesses to her people, and a contrite Pollione now sees her once again as "sublime woman." They go to their death together, reunited in a pyre of fire.
To this scenario laden with love, yearning, betrayal, anger and remorse, Bellini brought music of grand lyricism, fully expressive of the strong emotion. The role of Norma is hugely demanding of both vocal and dramatic skills, most memorably assumed by sopranos of great stature–Callas, Sutherland. San Francisco Opera’s production offered Catherine Naglestad, a local favorite, who needs to grow further into the role. Her "Casta Diva," one suspects as a directorial choice, was undernourished. While the aria is a prayer, it nonetheless entails a degree of passion from a priestess leading a conquered people. Still, Naglestad’s is an accomplished voice; if overall this was not a definitive performance, it surely offered moments of great beauty and dramatic verity.
The unexpected bonus of the evening was the Adalgisa of Irena Mishura, a late substitution for Nancy Maultsby. With a rich and supple mezzo instrument of both power and range, Mishura was not only vocally confident, but also a strong stage presence with considerable expressiveness. Zoran Todorovich was a full-voiced Pollione and conductor Oleg Caetani’s direction was well-paced.
Perhaps the less said about the unattractive physical production, the better. Imported from Canadian Opera Company, presumably in the interest of keeping the budget down, stage design (Allen Moyer), costumes (Anna Oliver), and lighting (Heather Carson) were all object lessons in how to sabotage an otherwise satisfactory performance.