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American Music - San Francisco Opera

A great production of Norma in San Francisco.

John Daly-Peoples
Sat, 01 Nov 2014

Norma by Vincenzo Bellini
San Francisco Opera
A co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona
The Canadian Opera Company and the Lyric Theatre of Chicago September 23

Many of the American opera companies have well established opera histories going back 150 years. Norma was first performed in San Francisco in 1851 (first performed in America in New Orleans in 1836, five years after it opened at La Scala) with Bellini’s La Sonnambula the first of that season.

San Francisco Opera itself presented Norma when it opened in 1937 and has had eight seasons of the opera since then. Norma is one of the great Italian operas from early in the 19th century, which, like Aida, are thinly veiled criticism of the Austrian Empire which occupied Italy at that time.

In the opera the Druid high priestess Norma is under pressure to declare war on the Roman invaders but she is compromised by her long-term, undeclared relationship with the Roman general Pollione with whom she has had two children. Her position is further compromised when she discovers that her associate and friend the virgin priestess Adalgisa and Pollione have become an item.

The opera brings these political social and personal issues into stark conflict underscored by the fact that for the main characters love is variously a drug, a panacea and a poison. The opera needs really good female voices, with the two principal female leads singing some remarkable duets. If one of the voices is not strong enough or is lacking in coloratura or acting ability, the entire opera suffers. However in Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) and Jamie Barton (Adalgisa) the opera has matched the voices, each enhancing the other.

Sondra Radvanovsky's light airy voice had a silken limpid quality that turned instantly steely and strong. As well as singing beautifully in the lower registers, she held her high notes seemingly indefinitely. Her voice  expresed joy and grief, exposing the deep emotional threads of the opera, notably in her singing of Casta Diva.

Mezzo soprano Jamie Barton was equally able to express her conflicted allegiances with a powerful and richly textured voice. Russell Thomas singing the role of Pollione, had a light, easy voice, which seemed to make him a more sympathetic character than if he had a more stentorian voice and he related well to the two female leads, an ideal match.

The set and costumes seem to be inspired by Game of Thrones as well as the costumes and objects of the time of the Roman occupation of Gaul but with a nod to Hollywood dramatisation The main set is a combination of temple and armoury, the walls lined with weapons – swords, shields, short seethes and lances. There are also a several bulls heads, relating both to the idea of sacrifice as well as to the virility and fighting prowess of the Gauls.

One of the problems which the opera had, a problem that many companies have with their big choruses is that they crowd out the stage.

In this production the set was quite shallow so there often seemed to be more Druid warriors and onlookers on stage than necessary.

Forthcoming productions of San Francisco Opera include Handel, Partenope (November 2) Puccini, Tosca (November 8) Rossini, Cinderella, (Nov 9–26) Puccini, La Boheme (November 14–December 7) Berlioz, The Trojans (June 7–July 1) Mozart, Marriage of Figaro ((June 14–July 5) A premiere of a new work Two women by Marco Tutin and Fabio Ceresa based on the tale by Alberto Moravia will appear from  June 13-30.

John Daly-Peoples
Sat, 01 Nov 2014
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American Music - San Francisco Opera