Cher Public

Running, jumping, or burning Gaul

Far be it from me to join the Schadenfreudian chorus of “Bye, Bye, Berti!” you may have been hearing in certain quarters, but the first thing I am duty-bound to report about San Francisco Opera’s Norma (of which three performances remain) is that they’ve hit the jackpot, coverwise. Russell Thomas, in for Marco Berti, is a very fine Pollione, at once elegant and heroic—a rare combination even in these tenor-rich times with so many worthy lyric singers.

By appearances, he does a certain amount of work to make the sound he makes, and it diminishes to some extent  his physical inhabitation of the role, but it’s virile, stylish singing and Pollione is, after all, not much to sink your teeth into dramatically. Not for nothing, his B-flat in “Me protegge, me difende” slapped me around heartily.  What, it’s Folsom weekend. It was consensual.

I’ve jumped right into the middle of things, but honestly it’s not like you’re here for a review of the plot of Norma. It’s your standard Boy Meets Druid affair, I guess, but mostly the plot is “in the 1830s, nobody really passed the Bechdel test.”

I did for a moment wish they’d done a radical restaging with occupied Palestine doubling for Roman Gaul, not because it would have been interesting, but because after reading in the Post where Abe Foxman hilariously asked “Why would anyone want to do an opera about a hideous, hateful murder?” I think the meaning of all operas is may essentially be: “Abe Foxman, you don’t understand opera.” Or maybe just “Shut up, Abe Foxman.”

Instead, what Kevin Newbury and his production team  have brought to the stage is an attractive if occasionally undermotivated bas-regie imagining ,a little reminiscent of those Handel stagings you’d get at City Opera in the 90s, full of arresting tableaux with the occasional dash of WTF. (They were the kind of thing you’d rate on the Gilligan’s Island scale. You know: this one made more sense than the one where they eat radioactive vegetables but less sense than the one where they put on a musical of Hamlet.)

Norma has only been put on here a handful of times since Gina Cigna sang it in 1937 and only thrice since the 70s, and this gentle reconception feels like just the right approach. Having lived here less than a year, I’ll have to accept on faith that the parallel drawn in the Director’s Note between Norma’s self-immolation and Burning Man is the kind of thing you just sometimes have to say around here.

Direction on the individual level certainly must have been both attentive and intensive. Sondra Radvanovsky is a singer who is greatly responsive to direction (as one might note having seen her urgent Amelia for David Alden and her, well, sincere Tosca for Luc Bondy) and here she gave a thoughtful and sometimes surprising performance, focused on Norma’s humanity more than her formidability.

Vocally, however, Radvanovsky was nothing if not formidable. The top of the voice is still a fucking sledgehammer in the best and most gratifying way, and she does not hesitate to dig into chest where the utterance demands it. I remember a time when she sang exquisite pianissimi and stunning fortes with not as much capacity in between, but that time is past, as several displays of messa di voce amply demonstrated. “Casta diva” was a hushed and hypnotic piece of singing after an uncompromising entrance. Ensembles were well balanced, up until it was time for, say, a face-melting D in the trio.

“Adalgisa is a mezzo! Adalgisa is a soprano!” Now we’ve had that argument and can move on with our lives. Jamie Barton is all mezzo, baby, and don’t you forget it–though she only indulged us once, on the words “Io l’obbliai” right before “va crudele” with any deliciously vulgar chesting. Barton made a rather odd entrance to the field of excellence, if you ask me: her Met audition was not an obvious triumph, if only because whoever decides these things chose for her bid for greatness that vessel of artistic truth and Schubertain subtlety “Hurr Hopp Hopp Hopp”, whose little-used subtitle is “Musik ist eine Heiliger Kunst, but we all have our off days.”

I feel fine admitting now that I was surprised when she won, because since then everyone’s gone mad for her, and rightly so. The voice is rich, flexible, and fully equal to Adalgisa’s trips into the stratosphere. Barton deploys it with drama and musicality and was especially winning in the second act’s long duet with Norma.

Christian van Horn dispelled the “thankless role” air that Oroveso can have, singing both scenes with dignity and gallons of voice. Indeed, he and Nicola Luisotti—who conducted the opera in an entirely non-curatorial way, if periodically traipsing over the border from “vibrant” to “rushed”made much more of “Ite sul colle” than its usual status as perfunctory exposition.

In the spirit of the tech fiefdom I now inhabit, I encourage you to check out Russell Thomasartist site, which includes a dauntless run through the opening song in “Das Lied von der Erde” and Jamie Barton’s entertaining appearance on Tamara Wilson’s YouTube talkshow thing.

And, of course,

Photo: Cory Weaver

  • SF Guy

    I found Friday’s Norma a considerable improvement over last Wednesday’s, and not just for the Pollione upgrade--Radvanovsky’s pianissimi were fully under control (at last!), to spectacular effect, and Van Horn now looks and comports himself like Norma’s dad, not her slightly older brother. The production’s eccentricities are easier to overlook the second time around, and whatever else is wrong with it, the singers throw themselves fully into the drama like no SF Norma in decades--park and bark it most certainly ain’t. This includes Thomas--for a big guy, he moves gracefully, and acts with sincerity and commitment; he should have a very bright future.

    I can’t help wondering though…how did all this come to pass? Berti was undistinguished, but no worse than the second-string Polliones we’ve had in the past here. Could Jamie Barton’s delay in officially committing to the 9/19-23 performances be connected? Certainly, her confirmation and Berti’s withdrawal were virtually simultaneous. Inquiring minds want to know, or at least speculate…

    • I don’t know if they were simultaneous. Karanas withdrew before performances began. Berti withdrew after the first (or second?) performance.

      • SF Guy

        I saw Berti’s second (and last) performance on Wednesday Sept. 10: he was adequate but undistinguished--par for the course here. Barton’s announcement on her site that she was withdrawing from the London commitment came on Sept. 11; the initial SFO announcement that she was stepping in for Karanas did not include the 9/19 & 23 performances, which remained TBA. There were widespread rumors that she would do all seven performances, but no official word until Berti left “for personal reasons.” Just wondering…

    • Greg.Freed

      You know, it occurs to me I could have been more generous about Thomas’ acting given that I don’t imagine covers get as much rehearsal time as principals. In any case, he was splendid.

  • Great review, Greg. Both informative and fun to read.

  • Krunoslav

    “the parallel drawn in the Director’s Note between Norma’s self-immolation and Burning Man is the kind of thing you just sometimes have to say around here.”

    Indeed! :)

    “Sometimes there’s CRUD, so…quickly!”

  • Barton had an engagement in London that she withdrew from. Here is the link to that concert, showing her withdrawal.

  • arepo

    I loved this. Thoroughly enjoyable and informative.

  • As for Adalgisa being a mezzo, no she is not. The score calls for a soprano. Same deal with Brangaena in Tristan. Both roles have been assigned to mezzos in the 20th and 21st centuries, but the scores call for sopranos. IMO, they should be younger, lighter sopranos, in contrast with the big guns of Norma and Isolde.

    • But did they have the mezzo voice category in Bellini’s time? Wasn’t it just sopranos and altos back then?

      I will say that Jumi So’s Adalgisa worked well opposite Bartoli.

      • Greg.Freed

        Agreed on all points. More than anything, I don’t care about what’s called for in the score if something else works equally well. Barton’s vocal coloring is, it goes without saying, darker than Radvan’s, but despite our conventions regarding vocal color and age or character or something, she certainly didn’t sound like Norma’s mom or whatever the concern is with mezzo Adalgise.

      • Krunoslav

        Margherita Rinaldi is revelatory as a light soprano Adalgisa on the Scotto/Muti pirate set.

        Closest I ever heard to that was Susanne Mentzer in Paris, just wonderful.

        • Greg.Freed

          Mentzer was wonderful in Houston, too. When was she not wonderful, really?

      • That’s a really good question that I do not know the answer to.

        • Argh, reached the limit of nesting, I guess. I was replying to the question about whether there was such a thing as a mezzo-soprano in the 1830s.

          I saw Mentzer in LA with Eaglen and Cura in 1996 and she sure was good.

      • Gualtier M

        The first Adalgisa was Giulia Grisi who was a famous Donna Anna and later Norma. She created Norina in “Don Pasquale” and Elvira in “I Puritani” roles which were written for her. So she was indisputably a soprano from the tessitura of the roles she sang/were composed for her.

        I have been reading a biography of Giuditta Pasta and she sang quite a few Normas before her retirement. Her Adalgisas included Elisa Orlandi, Joséphine de Méric, Anna del Serre and Rosa Bottrigari-Bonetti -- all sopranos who sang soprano roles in soprano keys. (Anna del Serre created Agnese del Maino in “Beatrice di Tenda” which is given to a mezzo today but was a soprano role -- ditto Elisa Orlandi who created Giovanni Seymour).

        I saw a Met Guild seminar interview with Dolora Zajick and Jane Eaglen. Zajick said that Adalgisa, in her opinion, is a soprano role and if the part were longer, she wouldn’t have been able to perform it.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          I think too much has changed in the way opera is presented, voices are used and careers are managed for meaningful conclusions to be drawn from C19th practices. Many of these singers hit the big time in their mid to late teens, something that just doesn’t happen anymore and hasn’t for a long time. An 18 year old with a voice capable of doing justice by our contemporary professional standards to a role like Giovanna Seymour would probably be advised to take a year or 2 out before even going to a conservatoire, these days. Yes, you can infer a certain amount from the other roles a singer sung, and what their chosen embellishments involved, but it’s pretty clear that fullness, richness and complexity of timbre were less important back then than they are now if teenagers were singing on the top stages, which is something we now set great store by when deciding who is a mezzo and who is a soprano.

  • Great review! Sounds like they put on a great performance despite the last minute cast changes.

    • steveac10

      It seems more like it was because of the last minute cast changes. It really is a sad commentary on the modern casting processes at the worlds major houses when they’re willing to book a mediocre singer like Berti a half a decade in advance to the exclusion of up and coming talent just to have that box filled in on a spreadsheet. It’s almost as baffling as the Met’s constant stream of Slavic and Baltic singers of no particular renown that fill the cover and B cast rosters for roles heavier than Barbarina when there are hundreds of singers of equal quality and lack of renown living within a 20 minute train ride of Lincoln Center.

  • operaassport

    Occupied Palestine? Oh lord, has it come to that level of nonsense?
    Abe Foxman can be a cartoon but he’s got nothing on a statement as ridiculous as that one.

    Nice review, though.

    • 98rsd

      Interesting that you didn’t say WHY it’s a ridiculous idea.

      • operaassport

        I don’t see the purpose of pointing out something so obvious :)

  • The tone of this feels so…familiar somehow…

    • rapt

      Familiar, unique, and well-loved!

  • Patrick Mack

    I loved this review. Very astute, insightful and hilarious. Bravo Greg and welcome!

  • JackJack

    Excellent review very much in your own (hilarious) voice. I hope this is the first of many more! And I hope San Fran can supply you some good review material.

  • Anna Tema

    Speaking of vocal colours/voice types, it’ll be interesting to hear the rumoured Norma with Netrebko and DiDonato -- Netrebko’s voice certainly darker than DiDonato’s!

  • antikitschychick

    enjoyed reading this fun review as well and, would just like to comment on a few of things.
    First off, I haven’t seen any performances of this run unfortunately, since I am on the east coast but I reckon that with such a great cast, vocally speaking its probably top notch and you west coast mofoes are lucky!!!
    I did however watch this clip that was posted by SFO on YT:

    aaaand I have to say that based on this clip, the production and the costumes both look very Game of Thrones-esque to me. If this was in fact intentional, tis a very smart move imo given than a) its a nice way of relating the action onstage to a very recent and widespread mainstream culture phenomenon/franchise and it also fits the story line of the opera well, given that it has that mix of primitive, power-centric and ultimately political elements similar(ly) to GOT.

    Thus I really think Norma is one of those operas that if done well could have more mainstream appeal along the lines of Traviata, Aida and Boheme. The problem as we all know is that it is a difficult opera to cast, although we are living in an era during which many a formidable diva have taken a stab at the role (most recently I watched a performance w Cedolins & Sonia Ganassi from 2007 and enjoyed it) and tantalizing possibilities for the not too distant future are brewing :-D :-D :-D.

    Having said all of that, I don’t think the above clip is well chosen for the purposes of advertising on the internet. First of all: Marco Berti. Dio! Where to begin? Not only is he completely disengaged with Jamie during *their duet* but he sounds…troubled. I do hope this was just an off performance and if not I hope he is able to sort out his issues so as to continue performing on a professional level.
    Second, and most importantly: Sondra, despite sounding good is making all sorts of grimaces and weird facial expressions that are just plain distracting. Also, she is not emoting enough with her eyes. In a role like Norma, ya gotta give fierce eye contact for the cameras! Thus, I am coming to the conclusion that she is someone I’d rather listen to than watch but I digress. My main point is that the camera personnel could have avoided this by not resorting to extended close-ups when her acting is clearly compromised. This is obviously not something that would bother people watching live in the house who are several meters away, but for an internet live stream or a DVD it doesnt come off well. Just sayin.

    Finally, this is unrelated to my above remarks but related to these performance. Mrs. Rad posted a link to this review on her FB page, by a Mr. Michael Milenski, a portion of which reads:
    “Radvanovsky has the powerful, luminous spinto voice to color the character [emphasis added]…” :mad:. Well I never! This Milenski dude is about to be sued for his misdirected and just plain ratchit use of those three words AND infringement of intellectual property, being that I tm’d those three words a looooooong time ago. Thus, NO ONE and I do mean NO ONE* is allowed to use those three words together in one sentence to describe any soprano voice everrrrr except in cases in which there is a direct reference to La Luminosa herself. Shame on him! :-P :-P :-P.

    On a more serious note, I really do question his use of the word luminous to describe Rad’s voice. Her voice to me sounds like the complete opposite of luminous: dark and ample a la callas in the mid to lower stretches and loud and bell-like w a fast vibrato (sort of chirp-like) in the higher stretches. Bells (especially top quality ones) can be made of bronze, brass or metal and the sound they produce doesn’t sound ‘bright’ imo. It sounds, well, round and brassy. To my ears, luminous denotes a resonant, “airy” and sort of flute-like quality, as in you can sort of hear a ray of light floating through the sound. Wouldn’t ya’ll agree??

    *No one except La Cieca and her cher public of course!

    • mia apulia

      I agree that I would not describe SR’s voice as luminous, but not only lighter voices are luminous. I would, for example, describe Flagstad’s voice (at least on records--I never heard her live)as luminous, even though it is quite a different kind of instrument than the ones you describe.

      • mia apulia

        but then Flagstad was a kind of miracle anyway

      • antikitschychick

        Oh I most definitely agree that not only lighter voices are luminous, hence my dubbing of LM as “la luminosa” lol. Actually, other posters chimed in and helped me come up with that so luckily Im not the only one that hears those qualities :-P.
        I think larger voices with upper registers that have an airy quality with resonant overtones can be said to have a luminious, rather than a bright quality to their sound (a la JDF) as can larger voices with squillo, e.g. MdM, Corelli, Nilson, Verret, Gencer, Devia, Sutherland of course and Montsy is I think the prime example of this given her stunning pianissimos. There are many many others I am forgetting but those are just a few off the top of my head and this is just my opinion of course.

    • Clita del Toro

      Poor Sondra, she looks as if she is about to be sick.

      • antikitschychick

        Lolzzz well that’s one way of describing it. Btw: good to see you back here Clita :-). I wonder if Oedipe and armerj will reappear…??? I really hope they do! Their contributions are sorely missed…at least by some :-(.

        • Clita del Toro

          Thanks, chick. Nice to hear from you.

    • fidelio101

      Tell the wig master that Norma needs her roots done!

  • Game of Thrones look was intentional or at least acknowledged by the director in the program notes.

    I was there Friday night and concur with the review, great singing, non interfering production. This was my first time seeing Norma, I have to say despite the beautiful music and its relatively short length, Act 2 did drag on. I wonder if this is a weakness in this particular production? I did not feel much dramatic tension. And no last minute return of Adalgisa to the stage at the end to watch the lovers burn, or did I miss that?

    • antikitschychick

      Yay thank you for confirming that PokeyGascon! :-). Also, just a humble suggestion from moi: there are some good complete performances of Norma available on YT which are worth checking out including the legendary one with Montsy and the wonderful Vickers as Pollione. There’s also the one with Cedolins I referenced above which I found pretty effective dramatically speaking despite the somewhat bland production. Vocally Cedolins sounded somewhat labored in the 2007 performance but there is one from 2003 in which she sounds better. Sonia Ganassy sounds very good as Adalgisa and puts in a fine dramatic performance in the ’07 version though. There are also a couple with Edita Gruberova which are somewhat campy but not without their merits.I’m sure other posters have equally good or better suggestions :-). I’d recommend watching at least one other perf to weigh against this one you just saw.
      P.S. sorry for not posting direct links…I’m writing this on my phone and its hard to embed videos from this platform. Will try and post some tomorrow although they’re easily found on YouTube :-).