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OPERA REVIEW : Twilight 'Norma' Arrives in Orange County

February 13, 1989|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

"It's hot."

Thus gushed the optimistic, show-bizzy ad for the opening of the third season of Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The season, not incidentally, is composed of two operas and a Broadway musical.

The accompanying portrait depicted an idealized prima donna, arms outstretched in noble benediction, the world ablaze behind her. This, we were supposed to believe, was Dame Joan Sutherland, bel-canto diva in excelsis, in extremis for the title role of Bellini's "Norma."

The stellar eminence came to Costa Mesa Saturday night. She brought along her ubiquitous, ever-accommodating husband, Richard Bonynge, to man the pit. She conquered a multitude of fans and star worshipers who brought along their instant ovations and push-button bravas .

Anyone not predisposed to automatic surrender and indomitable nostalgia, however, had to harbor a few misgivings. There is no denying Sutherland's place in the sun of operatic history. It is justifiably secure. Nevertheless, at the twilight of her long and distinguished career, Norma poses some serious problems.

At mid-range and moderate volume, Sutherland can still muster the luster of yore. Under pressure and in stratospheric flights, the tone becomes edgy, the timbre wiry, the phrasing gingerly.

Even with the aid of an ultra-sympathetic conductor and some downward transpositions, Sutherland can hardly compete with her own vocal ghost. And in this particular challenge, she certainly cannot--never could--compete with the dramatic specter of Maria Callas.

At 62, she has every right to settle for certain distortions, approximations and evasions. One must be grateful for her abiding authority, for the elements in her Norma that still work. But one would prefer to remember her in her prime, when she required no apologies and no indulgences.

Opera Pacific surrounded her with a lot of bizarre filigree. This was would-be-grand opera at its silliest. At least it wasn't amplified.

John Pascoe, the director and designer, wrote in a rather redundant program note that he "wanted to create a fully Romantic production that would remain faithful to the world of the Romantic 1830s." His sets, unfortunately, resembled nothing so much as chic window dressing borrowed from some jumbo-boutique at the South Coast Plaza super-mall nearby. His most innovative ideas seemed to involve dressing the Druid priestesses of 50 BC in elegant hoop skirts and having a horde of warrior-priests don silky cloaks and minimalist loin-cloths while prancing through clumsy-monkey routines.

The supporting cast included one exceptionally promising singer. Nova Thomas--a wide-ranging soprano rather than the now-traditional mezzo--brought bright, limpid tone and a bravura technique to the music of Adalgisa. Her musical virtues were offset, however, by theatrical liabilities. For some reason, Pascoe directed this vestal non-virgin to flit about the stage in the manner of a demented, hyper-balletic butterfly.

Georgi Selezneyev, a glasnost gift from the Bolshoi, introduced a big, gruff basso and a rudimentary sense of the Italianate style as Oroveso. He seemed a veteran of far different wars.

Cesar-Antonio Suarez, remembered for a preposterous "Puritani" in San Francisco a decade ago, struck tenor-caricature poses as Pollione and sounded loudly constricted. Anita Protich (Clotilde) and Jose Medina (Flavio) dispatched comprimario duties deftly.

The lighting turned out to be dark. The rituals creaked. The soloists occasionally croaked. The chorus sounded feeble. The orchestra provided merely pretty accompaniment. The archaic supertitles caused unintentional mirth.

The ad had promised a "sizzling performance." No such luck with this "Norma."

It was tepid.

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