Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, March 1, 1999

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Linda Pavelka, left, is Adalgisa, and Sharon Spinetti
sings the title role of Norma, the Druid priestess
in HOT's season closer.

‘Superwoman’ lives
through ‘Norma’

Norma: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Thursday, Blaisdell Concert Hall. Tickets $34-$77. Call 596-7858.

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin


"SUPERWOMAN" is not just a modern myth, as Bellini's 1831 opera "Norma" proves. Norma struggles to balance children, a career as high priestess, and her roles as dutiful daughter, mentoring friend and wife. Torn by conflict, Norma finally sacrifices herself on the altar's pyre.

Hawaii Opera Theatre closes its 1999 season with a heart-rending performance of Bellini's doomed superwoman. The production, which repeats tomorrow, is a pleasure throughout.

Stage director Paula Williams managed to make the opera's plot seem almost perfectly sensible, no mean feat, by adding numerous details, such as the chorus' handling of swords, and by highlighting interactions, such as Norma's silent plea and Oroveso's rejection in the final scene. Choral crowds added interest without overwhelming the main characters.

Williams paced her staging beautifully, matching movements to the music and to the internal drama, using rare moments of rapid movement for emphasis. Modern understanding of Druid rites remains sketchy, but Williams' version appears both believable and coherent.

Such careful staging is admirable in any case; that Williams accomplished it in a fraction of the usual time allotted directors is little short of miraculous.

Stage design by Peter Dean Beck set the Druids' sacred grove in Stonehenge with a stone altar on a steeply raked revolve, its back side serving as both Norma's dwelling and secret refuge. That Norma as high priestess lived in or near the sacred grove seemed apropos, but made it more difficult to believe that perennial weak point in the story -- that she could keep her children, aged about 8 to 10, secret from her people. Nonetheless, the set worked well, especially as transformed by Beck's lighting.

Most importantly, the leads were excellent. Linda Pavelka as the young priestess Adalgisa was extraordinary: she divulged a resplendent mezzo and strong acting skills in an outstanding performance. We hope to hear more from her.

Soprano Sharon Spinetti, well known to HOT audiences, shone in the demanding title role. Her rendition of the famous Casta diva aria was gorgeous and her pianissimo lullaby while lying next to her sleeping children took one's breath away.

Both sopranos deftly conveyed the conflicted complexities of their roles, and their duets, lead by conductor Enrique Patr'n de Rueda, formed high points in the drama.

The male leads were less pivotal, both to plot and in voice. Chester Patton, very tall and slender, made a striking figure amongst the cast, and his agile bass presented a commanding Oroveso (Norma's father). Tenor Drew Alan Slatton (Pollione) deserves praise for stepping in during the final week of rehearsal: he delivered a fine performance in remarkably short time.

Slatton's lovely tenor may not have been on the same dramatic par as the women, but then, neither was his character. Pollione, that hapless, clueless tenor thinking only of his love, spends the opera wandering into the wrong place at the wrong time. Thank goodness he finally follows a strong woman and does something right by dying.

Comprimario roles by lyric tenor Laurence Paxton (Pollione's centurion Flavio) and soprano Vicki Gorman (Norma's attendant Clothilde) supported well vocally and theatrically. Paxton, taller and more visually arresting than his commander, overpowered Pollione in action, underscoring Pollione's weak character. Even the two supernumeraries the children Samantha Pang and Seikichi Kuma were believable.

Choir directors Nola Nahulu and Beebe Freitas delivered a strong chorus. Orchestra and singers were expertly conducted by Patr'n, whose sense of bel canto style illuminated the score.

Ruth O. Bingham has a Ph.D. in musicology from
Cornell University, and is a free-lance writer.

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