By Vincenzo Bellini
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Oleg Caetani
Directed by James Robinson

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Norma, the 1831 work by Vincenzo Bellini with librettist Felice Romani, is a masterpiece of the bel canto operatic style, a challenge for all of its principals, especially the soprano in the title role. The singers in the San Francisco Opera production meet the challenge beautifully, especially American soprano Catherine Naglestad as Norma. Musically, the production is a triumph. Other aspects of the production, however, don't measure up.

First, though, the music. Except for an occasional slow tempo, Oleg Caetani (through Nov. 5, to be followed by Sara Jobin) conducts with attention to detail, presiding over the fine orchestra and leading the strong cast of principals. Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus acquits itself with its fine balance and overall excellence.

Naglestad displays her vocal artistry and technique throughout her demanding role as the conflicted Druid high priestess, carefully pacing herself, never pushing. She sings with such ease that she shows no signs of tiring at the end. This was noteworthy at the opening performance, when she apparently cut her hand on her sword during Act II and had to keep it wrapped in a white cloth. She also has a good range with no strain for either high or low notes, and her runs and trills are well defined.

She's well matched by Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura as Adalgisa, a younger priestess who is being wooed by Norma's secret lover, the Roman proconsul Pollione, sung well by Belgrade-born tenor Zoran Todorovich. Korean bass Attila Jun portrays Oroveso, Norma's father and the Druid priest; Sri Lankan American tenor Sean Panikkar is Flavio, Pollione's centurion; and American soprano Kimwana Doner is Clotilda, Norma's confidante. Panikkar and Doner are both Adler Fellows with the SFO, and both are promising young artists.

Although opera is considered to be music theater at its highest, this production from the Canadian Opera Company fares much better as music than as theater. Director James Robinson's staging tends to be static, with little action and sometimes with little interaction between the singers when they just stand and sing straight ahead.

Except for Anna Oliver's costumes, which seem appropriate for the setting and characters, the design elements fall far short of the production's high musical standards. Allen Moyer's ugly set resembles crudely built high scaffolds made of scrap lumber. Heather Carson's lighting is mostly dark and darker, often failing to light the singers adequately. In one scene, for example, Norma is in the moonlight, but shadows cast by the set leave her face in the dark. The scene in which the Druids prepare to attack the Romans is almost too dark to see what's happening.

It's unfortunate that the production is unworthy of the musical achievements, but in the end, it's the music that's most important in an opera, and here it's the music that so richly rewards the audience.

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