Thursday, December 15, 2005

Norma, San Francisco Opera

I started listening to opera seriously in 1994, and I think I picked up a recording or two of Norma early on. A friend dubbed me a copy of an Nth generation tape of the 1994 Seattle Opera broadcast with Jane Eaglen, and of course I had the requisite live Callas performance and eventually both her studio recordings. At the time, the opera seemed like an impossible rarity, one I'd never see live.

Somewhat to my surprise, here it is eleven years later and I've seen four Normas at three houses. Not one of them has been fully satisfactory, owing largely to the enormous demands of the title role and to various weaknesses in casting the piece (Richard Margison trying to stand up to the ear-splitting Eaglen and Dolora Zajick in the Act I trio: hopeless). Also to my surprise - and giving away a punchline in advance - of the three sopranos I've seen attempting the title role, Eaglen, in 1996, came closest to fulfilling its rquirements. By 2001, her voice had stiffened up from all that Wagner and she couldn't trill too well or sing the fioriture with the same facility as five years earlier. For example, on the tape from 1994, she nails the series of trills in "Adalgisa fia punita!" in Act II; I don't remember any such success in 2001.

In between the two Eaglen performances, there was a miserable Norma in San Francisco, with Carol Vaness disastrously overparted in the title role, Michael Sylvester's Pollione outsung by the Flavio of Gary Rideout (why, oh, WHY didn't they just swap roles?!), Anna Caterina Antonacci vivid but with a very short top as Adalgisa, and the forgettable Andrea Silvestrelli as Oroveso. The only saving grace was Patrick Summers's fabulous conducting. What a shame that Norma stands or falls on the strength of its singers; if I were judging only by the conducting, well, Summers was great, but that's just not enough.

The casting of the new SFO Norma gave me some hope, based on previous hearings of the singers: the wonderful Catherine Nagelstad gave every indication that she had the spirit and technique for the title role and Nancy Maultsby was a rich-voiced Erda in the 2001 Seattle Ring. I wondered about Zoran Todorovich's ability to sing Pollione adequately, but you must bear in mind that Giovanni Martinelli is the only Pollione, in my book. (Del Monaco? Bah!) I was aghast that Atilla Jun had been invited back to sing Oroveso after his godawful Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo; he's only in his 30s and I guess he really can't sing, since he sounds about 70.

The reviews of the production weren't encouraging; this was of particular concern to me because I had an opera-novice friend in tow. The logistics of the day had not been easy to arrange, from picking a date to getting workable seats, and, really, you always want friends you drag to the opera to have a good time. In the end, he did (and I think he'll even go back to the opera with me), but I spent an awful lot of the performance with my head in my hands.

That started as soon as the curtain went up. What on earth were the Druids doing inside a stockade, and what about the body a bunch of the Druids were running through with spears? Um, where does the libretto say that there is a body on stage in the first scene?? Isn't there supposed to be a sacred grove - of trees, not fences - there someplace? Attila Jun's first phrases were grainy in tone and undistinguished in phrasing, and he didn't get any better during the course of the opera. At a time when the Symphony is hiring excellent basses like Tigran Martirossian, why does the Opera keep this guy around?

Zoran Todorovich's entrance left a good deal to be desired as well. He was loud enough, and he's almost handsome enough to persuade the audience that not one, but two virgin priestesses would break their vows for him. Alas - he sang with little or no dynamic inflection and no understanding of the style.

There was no improvement with Catherine Nagelstad's appearance, either. As in Rodelinda, it took her half an act or so to warm up enough to move her voice well enough in the fioriture. And it was clear from her first words that she was not going to do a good job with the enraged Norma, because her voice didn't sound good at forte. Matters didn't improve much during the course of the opera, either; she sounded raw at the top of her range and tremulous under pressure. The fioriture flowed better after "Ah! bello a me ritorna," but there was little ornamentation in the duets with Adalgisa. (In 1996, Eaglen and Suzanne Mentzer added a lot of ornaments!)

Really, the best singer, by a long shot, was Irina Mishura, a late - very late - substitute for the originally-announced Nancy Maultsby. She sang with the best tone and liveliest rhythmic sense, with a good sense of dynamics and a real feel for the line of the music. Her Adalgisa also sounded younger and more innocent than Norma, a point that goes right by productions that cast a heavy mezzo or contralto as Adalgisa. Her superiority was obvious enough that my opera-novice friend easily identified her as the best.

But, not a good sign: "Sì, fino all'ore," which routinely leaves me in tears, didn't in this case. Maybe it was the limp conducting (I've already blogged about my unhappiness with Sara Jobin), maybe it was the ugly production, maybe it was lack of chemistry between Nagelstad and Mishura, but it was certainly a sign of something amiss. I was somewhat moved by the very end of the opera, but not nearly to the extent I would have been in a better performance or with a more appropriate production.

Oh, well: it's one of those operas where I may or may not ever see an ideal performance, one with the right conductor and singers and a decent production. It is a difficult opera: it needs a Norma who can rage and float with equal facility, and who can sing all of those little notes that scared Birgit Nilsson away from the role (thank goodness!); an Adalgisa who can project sweet innocence and keep up vocally with Norma; a Pollione who sings like a god and looks good enough that you can believe in his remarkable romantic success; an Oroveso who projects leaderly fury and fatherly tenderness.

It's easy enough to create a historical dream cast: Callas or Ponselle as Norma; Stignani as Adalgisa; Martinelli or Tamagno or Lauri-Volpi as Pollione; Pinza or de Angelis as Oroveso. Conducting: Toscannini? de Sabata? Panizza?

But today? Oh, sigh. I had the odd thought after the 2001 Met performance that maybe Zajick should take a shot as Norma, with Deborah Voigt swapping in for Adalgisa. I'm not sure there is a tenor I want to hear as Pollione. I'll take Stephen Milling or Rene Pape as Oroveso, and put Patrick Summers on the podium.

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