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, BurningMan.com.

Photo: Cory Weaver