Bel canto means “beautiful singing” and that’s what you get in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma.” With the fantastic American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, once utterly owned by the likes of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, it is a treat for the ear, if not for the eye.
This staging is one of the ugliest I have ever seen, with David Korins’ set cluttered with ersatz Druid symbols like bulls’ heads and dominated by a horizontal tree which is raised and lowered with ropes. (Nobody knows exactly what the Druids were about except that they revered trees and possibly were prone to human sacrifice.) Add to this a kind of Trojan horse (except in this case it’s a bull) that the warriors build as a war machine to defeat the occupying Romans. It actually got a laugh, and this is not a comedy.
Costumes, by Jessica Jahn, fare a little better. The chorus looks like a crowd of extras from “Game of Thrones” while Norma and her father, probably to denote their high priestly status, have embroidered and gilded robes. Jahn unfortunately has fitted Norma out with a blonde wig that makes her look more like Countess Almaviva or the Marschallin than an unwashed savage. Then again, nobody knew what the Druids wore, either.
But the singing is resplendent. In addition to Radvanovsky, her voice supple and nuanced, who is a marvel in the demanding role that requires her to be onstage almost every minute of the three-hour opera, Jamie Barton is a fine Adalgisa, exuding the character’s youth and innocence. Their voices blend beautifully but never as much as in the glorious “Mira O Norma” second act duet — my personal favorite although most people worship at the shrine of Norma’s “Casta Diva,” the hit number of the show. Although Radvanovsky makes “Casta Diva,” an invocation to the goddess of the moon, more of a prayer than the usual bel canto showcase, the caballeta that follows is is pure vocal fireworks.
Marco Berti turns in a respectable performance, despite some early strain in his upper register, as Pollione, the Roman general who loves Norma and leaves her with two children (Oliver Kuntz and Miles Sperske, the most adorable little boys you could wish for) before deserting her for the younger acolyte Adalgisa. Christian Van Horn is an imposing presence as Oroveso, the high priest who is Norma’s father.
To say that Norma is peeved at her abandonment is an understatement. Medea-like, she contemplates killing her children before deciding to do herself in instead (this is not a spoiler; it’s in the program). Dramatically it is a boon, allowing Radvanovsky to go from spurned virago to grieving mother in a few bars of music. What has always troubled me with regard to this story is the question of how, in a primitive, tightly knit community, she was able to have and raise them undetected. Even more problematic is Pollione’s last-minute reconciliation and decision to join Norma in her self-sacrifice (they walk into the flaming Trojan bull — also in the program). Their tender love duet does make it go down a little easier.
But we are not here to criticize the story. Just the performances, and they are splendid. Special kudos to Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra and the chorus of Druids, especially the men as they vow revenge on their conquerers in Act II. A fine opening to the San Francisco Opera’s new season.