Dynamic Eaglen Soars As Opera's `Norma'

Music review "Norma," Bellini opera in Seattle Opera new production with Edoardo Muller conducting, Jane Eaglen in the title role; Opera House, last Saturday through Jan. 26; 389-7676.

Was there a curse hanging over Seattle Opera's new production of "Norma"?

First, the eagerly-awaited soprano canceled (Carol Vaness, with a back ailment).

Then, nearly all of the cast and many of the chorus got sick - so sick that it wasn't clear until opening night whether Vanesss' replacement, Jane Eaglen, would be able to go on as Norma.

Then, the opera opened the same night as a Sonics game and the Nirvana concert. This created not only a traffic jam of Wagnerian proportions, but also an unnerving amount of sound leakage in the form of muffled thumps and bumps from Nirvana's amplifiers next door.

If the opera was accursed, that curse was lifted when Eaglen took the stage and started to sing. Fighting off both the flu and a cold, she was ill enough for company general director Speight Jenkins to warn the audience of her indisposition just before conductor Edoardo Muller began the overture.

But by the time Eaglen finished her big first-act aria, "Casta diva," it was clear that Seattle Opera had found a cast-iron diva capable of rising above viruses. If this is what Eaglen sings like when she's indisposed, heaven help her colleagues when she is in top form.

What a voice! Eaglen's is a big, important, beautiful voice, and it goes exactly where she wants it. It's also a voice of sufficient size and penetration to carry high Cs and Ds right through the entire cast, orchestra and chorus in full cry. But Eaglen can do much more than command a great fortissimo; she floats gorgeous soft tones with unbelievable ease, and creates passagework of remarkable suppleness and accuracy.

Eaglen's acting is direct, honest and dignified, but not yet really riveting. As Norma, the priestess scorned by her lover, she nonetheless rises to genuine fury when the betrayal is discovered.

Suzanne Mentzer created a remarkable Adalgisa, Norma's rival, in a vocally and dramatically compelling performance. She is an appealing actress with a wide emotional range, and her voice is great at both ends of spectrum.

Tenor Craig Sirianni made his company debut as Pollione, showing a fine Italianate style and impassioned singing. Kenneth Cox was a noble Oroveso, and Paul Mueller and Deeji Killian filled their small roles well.

The sets and costumes in this new co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Los Angeles Music Center Opera were designed by John Conklin, who created stark temple ruins over backgrounds that made clever use of projections, illuminating plot developments. Lighting designer Duane Schuler was a little overenthusiastic in his use of color, but he also created some lovely effects.

Cheers for the orchestra, led with a light and fluid touch by Muller, and the chorus, which sang with a ferocious intensity and contributed a great deal to the drama. Stage director Nicholas Muni's deft deployment of the chorus and cast, with both stylized gestures and naturalistic movement, struck just the right touch.