SFO’s Plywood “Norma” Smolders

Janos Gereben reviews San Francisco Opera’s Norma

OCTOBER 10/26/05: Review by Janos Gereben

Unencumbered by what was to come — a huge wood structure incongruously depicting the sacred forest in Gaul and voices to be tested in this most prominent of bel canto operas, the first five minutes of the new San Francisco Opera production of Bellini’s Norma were exciting, brilliant.

Before the closed curtain, Oleg Caetani conducted the overture (called sinfonia in the score)  in a fast, lively, bright way. The performance was sincere, but with also with a bit irony — Italian passion expressed and commented upon at the same time — and altogether memorable. The SF Opera Orchestra was at its considerable best.

Then, all too soon, the curtain opened, to Allen Moyer’s lumber pile, in Heather Carson’s dramatic lighting (calling attention to itself — a no-no), and director James Robinson had the Druid insurgents eviscerate and hang up high what must have been one of the Roman imperialists or perhaps a collaborator. So far so good– no overt references to Iraq, leaving it that to a large demonstration outside the War Memorial, taunting Rep. Nancy Pelosi for “always voting for thewar” (?) — but then came canto that wasn’t always bel.

Beginning with the chorus, which went from mediocre to outright ragged before Norma’s entrance, there were problems — not big ones, but you can’t have a great Norma that’s “not so bad.” Attila Jun’s dry and uncommanding singing as Oroveso was less than thrilling. Enter Zoran Todorovich as Pollione, singing with effort, displaying a thin voice, straining at high notes — albeit singing with fine diction. Two Adler Fellows,  Sean Panikkar as Flavio and Kimwana Doner as Clotilde,  showed off voices and performances more impressive than Jun or Todorovich.

When Catherine Naglestad’s long-awaited Norma appeared, the initial impression was dramatically and vocally disappointing. However much the high priestess might have sinned in secret, a Norma who vamps — in dress, walk and body language — just won’t pass for a sacred Druid virgin (even if the single mother of two children).

Until competent and pleasing duets later with Irina Mishura’s outstanding Adalgisa, Naglestad was not all that impressive. The director placed her upstage, singing into the wings, at the beginning of Casta Diva, so the great aria was virtually inaudible at first.

The Norma-Adalgisa duet in Act 2 was better yet, the chorus came into focus more, just in time to use all that lumber for a funeral pyre. If only more of the performance caught fire like that.

Norma: Catherine Naglestad
Adalgisa: Irina Mishura
Pollione: Zoran Todorovich
Oroveso: Attila Jun

Conductor: Oleg Caetani
Sara Jobin (11/10-21)
Director: James Robinson*
Set Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Anna Oliver
Lighting Designer: Heather Carson
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

* San Francisco Opera debut
Cast, programs and schedules are subject to change

Approximate Running Time: 3 hours
Sung in Italian with English Supertitles
This production of Norma was originally created for the Canadian Opera Company.


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