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S.d. Opera Revives Troubled 'Norma'

October 27, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

SAN DIEGO — Try to forget Zinka Milanov. Put Joan Sutherland out of your mind. Don't even mention Maria Callas. Pretend Beverly Sills and Shirley Verrett never happened.

The San Diego Opera has a new heroine for Bellini's "Norma." Or thinks it has.

Norma, you may recall, is the ultimate test for a dramatic coloratura soprano.

An appropriate interpreter of this nearly impossible role must be a bel-canto enchantress with a voice that suggests velvet one moment, steel the next. She ought to command an extraordinarily wide dynamic range, a vast spectrum of vocal light and shade, uncommon flexibility and a flamboyant temperament. That's all.

These days every self-respecting incipient prima donna wants to sing Norma. Few should. Few can.

The dauntless heir to the quaint Druid altar Saturday night at the Civic Theater was Cristina Deutekom. The Dutch soprano had served, in her youth, as a virtually definitive Queen of the Night. Eventually she progressed--if that is the right verb--from grandiose Mozartian pyrotechnics to the melos of the Verdian spinto. The results, though uneven, often proved interesting.

At this stage of her career, Norma could be something of a Waterloo. Deutekom still floats some ravishing pianissimo tones, when the pitch doesn't sag. Much of the time, however, she sounds edgy, wiry and shrill.

These problems could be mitigated, to a degree, if the lady happened to be a persuasive actress. Callas, after all, produced her share of shrieks and wobbles on occasion. Deutekom, unfortunately, cuts a matronly figure on the stage--the sort that delights New Yorker cartoonists--and her emotional scale embraces stolid calm at one extreme, mild annoyance at the other.

In this lurid yet noble tale of amorous passion, violent jealousy, heroic self-torture and ultimate sacrifice, that scale seems a bit narrow.

Under the circumstances, the opera should have been renamed "Adalgisa." Delores Ziegler, the young American who sang Norma's friendly rival, may just be the mezzo-soprano we have been waiting for.

As the temple virgin who seconds the protagonist in some of the most luxurious duets in all opera, she sang with exceptional warmth, suavity and elegance. She illuminated the line with telling accents and managed the florid flights with both ease and expressive point.

She is, moreover, a handsome woman, and, even under the most ridiculous conditions, she proved herself a compelling dramatic force. Remember the name.

The rest of the cast was solid. Antonio Barasorda, the Pollione, showed signs of becoming an imposing, dark-voiced tenore di forza . Nicola Ghiuselev as old Oroveso emitted big, primitive basso sounds and wore his beard with dignity.

The comprimario duties were respectably managed by Richard Brunner as Flavio and Deidra Palmour as an oddly costumed Clotilda.

Edoardo Mueller sustained clarity, style and momentum in the pit, accompanied the singers sensitively and got the sometimes recalcitrant San Diego orchestra to play beautifully.

Apart from a problematic heroine--and that's a pretty fatal apart --this was a musically respectable "Norma." Theatrically, it was disastrous.

Carl Toms' trendy set, a cruel legacy of the Capobianco era, reduces the sacred forest, Norma's secret dwelling and other romantic conceits to a single silly unit. The all-important tree is now a ravaged tepee. The woods resemble a couple of sculptures made with coat hangers. The cyclorama glows crimson whenever emotional heat is supposed to rise.

Bernd Benthaak, the debutant stage director, found himself confronted with this preposterous visual frame, plus a singing-statue heroine, plus a libretto replete with marching clerics (vintage 50 BC), strutting warriors and preening priestesses.

No wonder he concentrated on entrances and exits.

The loathsome super-titles produced titters during some of the gravest moments, presumably in the name of communicative enlightenment. Instant culture strikes again.

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