By Vincenzo Bellini
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Patrick Summers
Directed by Andrew Sinclair

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Vincenzo Bellini's Norma places enormous demands on the title character, for it requires a soprano with a vast emotional and vocal range, to say nothing of vocal stamina. The fact that such a soprano is a rarity is perhaps why the San Francisco Opera has not staged the 1831 work since 1982, when Joan Sutherland sang Norma and Marilyn Horne sang Adalgisa -- a pairing of operatic legends.

Now SFO is trying again, this time with American soprano Carol Vaness, who also has portrayed Norma for the Houston Grand Opera and Paris Opera/Bastille. The results are mixed. Her portrayal of the Druid high priestess seems true to the character. Her first entrance, for example, shows a woman clearly in charge of her people and justifiably angry at their impatience to overthrow the hated Roman occupation forces. In Norma's private moments, however, we see her anguish and sense of guilt for betraying her sacred vow of chastity with no less than the Roman proconsul, Pollione (American tenor Michael Sylvester). Later, her sympathetic forgiveness of the young priestess Adalgisa (Italian mezzo soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci), who confesses she has broken her vows, rings true, as do her anger, astonishment and dismay when Norma learns that Adalgisa's lover also is Pollione. And on it goes as Vaness continues to take Norma on the emotional journey that leads to her heroic death.

Would that Vaness's singing were equal to her acting. In matching her singing to Norma's fury in Act 1, Vaness often pushes her voice, stabbing at high notes with decidedly unsatisfactory results. Her duets with Antonacci, however, are well-done with careful attention to blend except -- again -- for high notes. Act 2 is much better as Vaness modulates her voice, singing with more restraint, hence with more control and more beauty, but with no loss of emotional impact.

Antonacci's Adalgisa is affecting. She, too, has some problems with high notes, but she moves gracefully and comes across sympathetically. Sylvester is almost a nonentity as Pollione. There's no passion in his acting or his singing. For such a large man, his voice seems lacking in power. The notes are there, but they don't project well. Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli has an imposing presence as Oroveso, Norma's father, but his tone is woolly. Canadian tenor Gary Rideout and American soprano Christina Lamberti acquit themselves well in the supporting roles of Flavio and Clotilde, respectively.

Conductor Patrick Summers and the SFO Orchestra distinguish themselves with a compelling overture, setting the tone for their highly successful collaboration on Bellini's gorgeous music. The SFO Chorus makes its usual strong contribution. Stage director Andrew Sinclair directs and paces the action with intelligence. Sets by José Luciano Varona and costumes by Varona and Robert Perdziola are serviceable but not striking. Michael Whitfield's lighting is effective, especially for Norma's pyre.

This may not be a Norma for the ages, but it does have its share of pluses.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:50 PST