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Don't mess with Norma — but do go to hear her sing

West Bay Opera creates ambitious production of 19th century opera

How can a Druid high priestess possibly be expected to react when her Roman lover leaves her for a younger woman? If her name is Norma, she won't keep you guessing: "War! Carnage! Extermination!" Not good news for il Romano.

But there is good news for local opera fans attending West Bay Opera's production of Vincenzo Bellini's magnificent 19th century I bel canto opera, "Norma," in Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre: powerhouse soprano Christina Major is cast in the title role, delivering an often electrifying performance of a woman revered by her people but betrayed by her lover, Pollione — who is also the father of her two children (this is opera, after all).

The role is a famously difficult one in an overall demanding opera, and opening night (Oct. 13) of the West Bay production had some decidedly rough moments. One of the most famous arias, Casta Diva, in Act I, started off on a wobbly foot, but thankfully recovered to enchant the audience and end in quiet grace.

That unevenness was evident in several other instances, but the overall production offered many rewards.

In addition to Major's skillful and forceful portrayal of Norma, there were several other outstanding performances. Mezzo soprano Veronica Jensen was superb as Adalgisa, a Druid priestess who innocently falls in love with Pollione, the man who has been Norma's secret lover long enough to father her two sons. The role of Adalgisa, which requires emotional depth as well as a broad vocal range, is also highly demanding, and Jensen is up to the challenge.

Benjamin Sloman's performance as Pollione was uneven, at times weak — not what one would expect from an arrogant Roman proconsul hated by the subjected Druids of Gaul. But at times, his singing was fluid, powerful and precise — one memorable example is the conclusion of Act I (Ma di: l'amato giovane and Vanne, si, mi lascia, indegno), in which he joined with Major and Jensen in richly textured song.

Also delivering an outstanding and moving performance was bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala as Oroveso, Norma's father and leader of the Druids. Musik-Ayala sang the role of John the Baptist in West Bay's "Salome" last spring, and his appearance in "Norma" is as impressive as it was in the earlier production.

West Bay's general director, Jose Luis Moscovich, conducts the opera orchestra, and Igor Vieira is stage director.

This is an ambitious production. And, as always with live, fiercely felt music, the rewards are many.

What: "Norma"

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

When: Sat., Oct. 21, at 8 p.m.; and Sun., Oct. 22, at 2 p.m.

Info: For tickets, call 650-424-9999. More information, go to wbopera.org.

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