Saturday, September 13, 2014

San Francisco Opera's Norma

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Sept. 10, 2014

And late at night, when the fog rolls through the San Francisco streets like a ghost train, I stand alone behind the War Memorial Opera House, face the cold hills and whisper “Radvanovsky.”

Okay, I’m just ripping off The Prince of Tides, but I swear sometimes it feels like that. The divine Sondra R. is everything I’ve ever wished for in a soprano. I am downright fetishistic about dynamic creativity within a line, and so is she, playing with crescendoes, diminuendos and most notably a death-defying subito-pianissimo like a cat playing with a trapped bird. What’s most impressive is that she employs these breathtaking quietudes despite the fact that she possesses one of the surest, easiest top notes in opera. (Most sopranos would want to unleash that thing at the slightest opportunity.)

Radvanovsky made much of her reputation in the Verdi canon – notably the 2009 Leonora (Il Trovatore) that captured the hearts of San Franciscans in a remarkable way. That said, a golden-age opera like Bellini’s is an even better fit, since singers from that era were allowed – and encouraged – to sing in a showy, more ornamented style than in the later, more realistic operas of Verdi and those who followed. What adds to the effect is Norma’s position as a Druid priestess, giving Radvanovsky’s haunting pianissimos the feel of mystical enchantments.

Jamie Barton and Sondra Radvanovsky as Adalgisa and Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Stage director Kevin Newbury paints Norma not as the standard earth mother but as a rock star (helped not a little by the wild blonde hair and and Jessica Jahn’s dazzling yellow-spangled dress). And if Radvanovsky is the rock star, Jamie Barton’s Adalgisa is the rock. Barton’s mezzo is surpassingly smooth, her dynamics much more subtle. (On a contour map, Radvanovsky is a Southwest terrain of canyons and buttes, Barton a series of smooth Appalachian hills.) This complementary aspect reaches its peak in the a capella sections of their duets, in which the two women face each other, kneeling, and rain down a shower of golden tones.

Another standout is bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the priest Oroveso. Van Horn manages to produce a tone simultaneously velvety and thundering, quite a feat (and his height adds to the sense of authority). Harder to figure is tenor Marco Berti as the roamin’ Roman, Pollione. Berti’s spinto shines on top, but around his break he develops an unseemly wobble. He’s a bit like a cranky sports car that operates best at high speeds. (Note: Berti has since been replaced in the role by Russel Thomas.)

Christian Van Horn as Oroveso. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Ian Robertson’s chorus exhibited its usual excellence (the men done up in Amish beards and tattoo-sleeves), and Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra sounded particularly regal, especially in the majestic overture and Bellini’s noteworthy passages of brass. David Korins’ set design is awe-inspiring, the gargantuan gate of a Druid fortress housing a gigantic war-machine bull constructed of tied-together planks (the final immolation carries an echo of Burning Man – which is, in fact, referenced in Korins’ director’s notes).

Considering recent football-related legal issues, and having just witnessed Gilda giving herself up for the Duke three nights before, the Countess expressed a little weariness at the operatic fondness for female self-sacrifice, but at least in this case the heroine brought a man into the flames with her. All in all, however, Norma is ahead (or perhaps behind?) its time in the area of female empowerment, tied as it is to the goddess religions of paganism. SFO’s production is a cooperative effort with the operas of Barcelona, Toronto and Chicago. Playing Norma’s children, Oliver Kuntz and Miles Sperske stole the show with their unaffected cuteness. I also enjoyed the presence of ancient action figures in their nursery. Some things never change.
Marco Berti and Sondra Radvanovsky as Pollione and Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Through Sept. 30, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue. $30-$370, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic and author of the best-selling Kindle novel, The Popcorn Girl.


Anonymous said...

Excellently written. Thank you for paying such intelligent attention to the singing.

Michael J. Vaughn said...