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Norma Only Catches Fire Intermittently

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
11/07/1998 -  and 10, 15*, 18, 21, 24, and 28 November 1998
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma
Carol Vaness (Norma), Anna Caterina Antonacci (Adalgisa), Michael Sylvester (Pollione), Andrea Silvestrelli (Oroveso), Christina Lamberti (Clothilde), Gary Rideout (Flavio)
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera, Patrick Summers (Conductor)
Andrew Sinclair (Director)

The title role of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, Norma, is one of the supreme challenges for the soprano, demanding not only a formidable technical mastery and a voice capable of an enormous palette of colors, but also an emotional and dramatic range to match. Norma is priestess, lover, mother, daughter and leader. She is tender, jealous, ferocious, courageous, noble, petty, fearful, and much more. It is not a role for ordinary singers and the successful exponents of the role have all been extraordinary - Callas, Caballe and Sutherland to name some of the more recent ones.

The current revival of Norma features Carol Vaness as the druid priestess along with Anna Caterina Antonacci as Adalgisa, Michael Sylvester as Pollione and Andrea Silvestrelli as Oroveso.

Debuting in the role, Silvestrelli shows great promise with a rich rolling sound and a smooth elegant production. Despite the best efforts of the wig and make up department, his youthful presence hardly suggested the aged druid, but Silvestrelli wisely avoided the trap of artificially darkening his voice and opted instead for a satisfying, honest vocal production with firm bel canto values.

Vocally, Sylvester provided variable results as Pollione. Sometimes bright and heroic tones poured forth with apparent ease, while at others he seemed hard pressed to complete a phrase comfortably. There is no doubt that he has the resources to sing the role well, but the variable results indicate an unreliable, unfinished technique. Dramatically, Sylvester remained uninvolved throughout.

Antonacci’s light, lyric mezzo suits the role of the presumably younger priestess, Adalgisa better than the frequently cast heavier mezzos and she imbued the role with musicality and a touching, sympathetic portrayal. However, at least in the performance reviewed, she also revealed a thin white-toned top, not easily accessed and exposed more often than necessary due to some ill-advised embellishments. There were also noticeable pitch problems, particularly in the duet "Mira O Norma". But her middle and lower registers were warm and full-toned without any hint of strain or muddiness. But the success of any Norma rests with the soprano and Carol Vaness provided mixed results. From start to finish, she commanded the stage with her physical presence. Stalking about, fiercely defiant and proudly authoritative before the druids, equally passionate in her personal live and about those around her, Vaness seized upon the dramatic possibilities of the role aggressively and confidently.

Less assured was her vocal command of the role. Her opening scene with the long recitative and demanding "Casta Diva" found Vaness pushing her voice to sound strong and commanding. The result unfortunately was a tight, underpowered tone that lacked freedom and resonance. Throughout the first act, she sounded as if in serious vocal difficulties, straining for the top notes, avoiding the optional high ones and easily overpowered by the other singers. In the second act, she relaxed and her singing of the opening monologue found her in better shape, with an attractive core of sound and a free ringing top that eluded her earlier. It was a case of less being more and the direction she needs to follow for a more satisfying complete performance.

Vaness looked stunning in a series of flattering new costumes designed by Robert Perdziola who also provided new costumes for Adalgisa. Aside from those changes, the old setting and costumes by Jose Luciano Varona were used and the best that can be said for them is that the scene changes were fairly swift. But that is about their sole virtue and are a rather hideous collection of vaguely organic shapes that are best quickly forgotten.

To give new life to the dramatic side of Norma, stage director Andrew Sinclair introduced the occasional novelty such as human sacrifice, with Norma herself doing the deed to the melismatic strains of "Casta Diva".

But for the most part, the infusion of drama was the work of Vaness and conductor Patrick Summers who managed to provide both firm, authoritative leadership in the pit and flexible, sensitive support to his cast. From a brisk-tempoed overture, Summers built the first scene in one long arch peaking with Norma's invocation to the chaste goddess of the moon. He showed a similar finesse with each scene succeeding scene and ending with a superbly calibrated finale ensemble full of majesty and expansive grandeur.

Whether one expects an opera like Norma to be a dramatically viable work or just a vehicle for displays of vocal prowess, the San Francisco Opera's production showed that clearly both are needed for the opera to work. At the times when the level of singing matched the level of dramatic fire, the piece blazed with life. The potential was there for greatness, but it often went unrealized, leaving only the tantalizing glimpses of greatness.

Kelly Snyder



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