Opera is a multimedia art of many elements, but sometimes a single aspect overwhelms all others. Such was the case at Friday’s opening night of San Francisco Opera's 92nd season.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Vincenzo Bellini's 1831 “Norma” gave an extraordinary performance of sustained power and great beauty, comparable to those of fabled stars in the company's long and distinguished history.
The role of the Druid priestess who has an illicit affair with the head of the occupying Roman army — in Gaul, around Caesar's time — is famously challenging, one of the most difficult in bel canto (beautiful singing) opera.
Norma sings dramatic and tragic music of great intensity for nearly three hours, in a voice that must fill the enormous War Memorial as well as cajole tender, loving, passionate feelings. Radvanovsky did all, brilliantly.
Her heroic, and yet effortless-sounding, vocals were consistently in service of the work, soaring through the huge theater, but not overly showy. Her high notes, heartbreaking diminuendos, projection and diction were perfect.
Even before the stunning grand aria, “Casta diva” (Pure Goddess) _ made famous in modern times by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland _ Radvanovsky ruled the stage and house with a powerful vocal and dramatic presence; three hours later, she still held the audience in her hands as her character approached tragic self-sacrifice on a pyre.
Radvanovsky was well supported by the orchestra, led by SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti. Mezzo Jamie Barton was superb as Adalgisa, and tenor Marco Berti as Pollione gave one of his best performances yet in The City.
Towering Christian Van Horn was an impressive Oroveso. Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus sang beautifully, but — possibly as a result of Kevin Newbury's stage direction – its songs of war and carnage sounded like a lullabies.
Otherwise, Newbury, who made his San Francisco debut with premiere of “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” last year, fared well. Despite a bit too much busyness with all the coming and going in the background, the complex story came through (even for an opening-night audience not necessarily focused completely on the opera).
In David Korins' set design, the Druid forest is represented by a single tree trunk hovering in front of a large metal wall at the back of the stage, with snowfall visible through an open door, and interesting touches, such as a gigantic metal bull, looming over the stage as a kind of Trojan horse. Jessica Jahn's costumes appear to show time-traveling Druids, caught between ancient Ireland, 19th century Paris and places in-between.
Joining SFO in presenting this “Norma” are Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu (where Radvanovsky will appear in the title role next year), and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19, Sept. 23, Sept. 27 and Sept. 30; 2 p.m. Sept. 14
Tickets: $10 (standing room) to $370
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com