That's how it goes. Fortunately, I was able to get to Norma, which opened the season, at the next to last performance. Let me tell you, if you missed this one, especially after Russell Thomas replaced Marco Berti, I do feel for you. You are not going to hear singing of this quality, in this opera, very often.
And I should know. When I started getting serious about opera 20 years ago, I got myself a couple of Callas's recordings, and I figured I would probably never see it, because it was rarely done and anyway nobody could sing it.
Boy, was I wrong. This was my fifth Norma:
- Los Angeles, 1996, Eaglen, Mentzer, Cura, unfortunately conduced by Placido Domingo
- SFO, 1998, Vaness, Antonacci, Sylvester/Summers
- Met, 2001, Eaglen, Zajick, Margison/Rizzi
- SFO, 2005, Nagelstad, Mishura, Todorovich/Jobin
- SFO, 2014, Radvanovsky, Barton, Thomas/Luisotti
Fifth time's a charm, I guess. The 1996 was very good, the conducting excepted; at that point in her career, Jane Eaglen could trill and do the runs well; you could hear the trills at "Adalgisa fia punita," unlike almost everyone else. She and Susanne Mentzer had worked out beautiful variations for the second verse of "Si, fino al'ore." Cura was a convincing Pollione, too.
The 1998 SFO bring-up was bad, with Ana Caterina Antonacci giving the impression that she was the only person on stage who could sing. Of Carol Vaness and Michael Sylvester, I can only say that Gary Rideout, singing Flavio, was three times as heroic-sounding as Sylvester. My notes say that Patrick Summers conducted very well. The 2005 was also dismal; Nagelstad...eh...Todorovich, worse; somewhat flabby conducting. Again, Adalgisa saved the day, with Irene Mishura giving a fine performance indeed. As for Met 2001, by then Eaglen had lost much of the flexibility in her voice, and Margison was mediocre and inaudible next to the women's gigantic voices. Well, at least it had decibels.
We'll never know the full story of how this year's SFO Norma was cast. The announced trio of principal principals was Sondra Radvanovsky, Davida Karanas, and Marco Berti. Karanas withdrew during the rehearsal period, replaced by Cardiff Singer of the World winner Jamie Barton. Berti withdrew after the second performance, replaced by Russell Thomas.
It's lucky that Jamie Barton was more or less free: she withdrew from a single engagement in London to be able to sing the full run. (I seriously doubt that she was covering Karanas, though odd things do happen in the opera world.) And Thomas was evidently Berti's cover.
By the time I saw it, at the next-to-last performance, the whole thing had come together very nicely, at least vocally. I do not expect to hear this opera sung any better than it was on September 27, which is to say, pretty close to flawlessly.
Barton, especially, is lavishly gifted, with an extremely beautiful, round, warm mezzo soprano, very even and with high notes in place. (The tessitura for Adalgisa is the same as for Norma; the latter is just up there in the heavens a lot more. But Adalgisa does need to be strong above the staff.) No complaints at all about her. She was dignified, she moves well on stage, and she sang like an angel. She also sounded great with Rad in the duets; their voices are oh so different, but sounded good together.
Russell Thomas has a good, strong tenor voice, well-placed, clarion, tireless, and with all the notes there, cleanly. He was audible in the trio and sounded good with both Barton and Rad. I liked hearing him a lot and hope his career gets a big boost from this.
And then there's Sondra Radvanovsky. I am not, unlike some, going to say this was flawless, but it was damn close. I will be lucky if I hear this role better sung in my lifetime, and those flaws I heard? They are fixable: her trills aren't great, and honestly, that thing she does where she sings so softly her voice practically disappears? It is an overdone mannerism that calls attention to itself; if she simply diminished the sound to a piano with some body, it would be more beautiful and just as impressive. And we know she can do this, because "Son io" was breathtaking and sung exactly the way I wish she'd sung all of her piano phrases.
Now that I've got that out of the way: she was enormously impressive. I like her voice, which is not beautiful in the Ponselle mold, but which has a lot of character. She has tremendous control of dynamics, from that teeny piano up to ff that sounded as though she could have been even louder. Beautiful, supple, phrasing; good fioriture, plenty of dramatic presence: that's what this role takes, and she had it.
If only the direction and production had been better. Holy silly costumes, Batman! I understand there was an explicit attempt to have a Game of Thrones ambiance, and uh well....nothing in GoT quite accounts for the hideous wig Rad was wearing, the leftover Star Trek uniform they stuffed Thomas into, or the Modern Cabana where Norma's children were living.
For reasons unclear to me, the Druids lived inside a stockade, rather out in the woods, crediting them with a different level of technology than the usual Norma production. Perhaps the idea was to imply that they really could successfully take on the Roman empire? If so, the production could have taken this idea further. (Why someone hasn't done the obvious and created a radical feminist Norma production, I don't understand, because the most intense personal relationship does seem to be between the priestesses.)
Worst of all were the ghastly props and stage furniture, and the supers/stage hands constantly moving them around. The Modern Cabana came and went a few times; there was an unnecessary platform that Oroveso and Norma both sang from; there was that....horizontally suspended tree that Norma cuts the mistletoe from; the gong that had to be brought forward and then removed; the Druid bull, a wheeled statue that looked as if it was made out of huge tongue depressors.
These props usually took up about a third of the stage, forcing the singers, including the chorus, to maneuver around them. The constant movement on and off stage of the props was very, very distracting, especially from my seat in the Dress Circle.
And Kevin Newbury's Personregie left a lot to be desired, as in, he did almost nothing interesting with the characters. So many opportunities for scenery chewing missed! I mean, nothing happened dramatically when Rad turned on Pollione, after discovering his betrayal of her. Almost nothing happened when she confessed and walked into the fire, or when she was furious with Adalgisa, or about the kill the children, or...
There's plenty of room for drama in this most voice-focussed of operas, and yet.....most of the drama went for nothing.