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Pity the poor soprano who signed up to sing the title role in Bellini’s Norma. As if the part’s not already a bitch to get through on its own terms, there are all those Ghosts of Normas Past to contend with. Ghosts on the short list would include Ponselle, Callas, Sutherland, and Caballe—all of whom have left a daunting legacy of recordings that serve as a series of master classes in the art of bel canto singing.

Bellini’s melodrama (set in ancient Gaul) about a Druid priestess who loves a Roman proconsul and loses him to another priestess is the Everest of the bel canto repertoire. Most sopranos would count themselves lucky to finish a performance of Norma without tripping all over themselves vocally. That Susan Foster makes a solid success of it in the Summer Opera Theatre Company’s new production is a formidable achievement. Foster has a big voice of the bright, edgy, slightly anonymous variety so common in American opera houses these days, but she knows how to use it. She possesses a wide vocal and dynamic range as well as a supple legato, and she acts convincingly through the voice.

Where Callas & Co. scored points over Foster (and other mere mortals) was in the way they met the more superhuman demands of the role. Ponselle could spin a breath-defying, seemingly endless thread of sound, as could the golden-toned Caballe. Sutherland dazzled with the daredevil ease of her coloratura. Callas at her peak could do it all, while creating the role anew with her tragedienne’s instincts, her erotic charge, her fierce intelligence. If Foster sounds prosaic in such company—anyone would—she makes Norma a living, breathing character, and never seems unattractive or overparted. That’s more than can be said for a lot of big-name sopranos who have sunk like so many stones in this opera. (I’ll never forget Renata Scotto’s wince-making, late-career Norma at the Met 20 years ago. Ouch!)

Summer Opera, in fact, has assembled a much more impressive cast for this thorny work than a company its size has any right to. Deidra Palmour’s punchy lyric mezzo makes Norma’s romantic rival, Adalgisa, plucky and vulnerable by turns. (She blends uncannily well with Foster in their two extended duets.) David Brundage is suitably orotund as Norma’s father, Oroveso. And as the proconsul, Pollione, Jorge Orlando Gomez displays a truly unique heroic-tenor voice of almost baritonal richness, enlivened by a flickering vibrato. More’s the pity his high notes petered out and his acting was only intermittently engaged on opening night. Let us hope it was just a case of nerves, because this is a promising voice.

Almost as challenging as singing Norma is staging it. The story plays like a not-too-distant cousin of Medea. But instead of slaughtering her children and immolating her husband and his new squeeze, Norma only threatens carnage and winds up choosing death with her roamin’ Roman. There’s plenty of enthusiastic breast-beating over all of this, but little real action, so most productions look about as kinetic as a day in a sculpture garden. Director John J. Lehmeyer tries to jazz up the crowd scenes by having the chorus run around the stage and frantically reconfigure whenever the music hits a lull. (There’s a priceless bit of unintentional hilarity when the assembled Gauls register their frustrations in muttering and grunting that sounds like a cross between Quest for Fire, Frankenstein, and Little Caesar.) Lehmeyer’s direction of the principals is better, but the production only really comes to life when Foster and Palmour are onstage together.

The costumes suggest that folks living in 50 B.C. wore bedspreads and cottonballs, and the set—scaffolding artfully festooned with decaying nets and dead leaves—does nothing to dispel the old-school vibe suffusing the rest of the production. (I’m particularly sorry I missed Lehmeyer’s Vegas update of Don Giovanni earlier this summer. He’s got a surer touch with comedy, and by all reports it was a hoot.)

The queasy strings, flat winds, and scary ensemble playing that cropped up from time to time on opening night were par for the course at Summer Opera. But conductor Mark C. Graf treated the score with affection and imagination, allowing Bellini’s guitarlike orchestration to both lead and support the voices, as it must. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking, as I sat in the intimate Hartke Theatre, watching this quaint production and listening to the slightly rough-and-ready performance, that I was more in touch with the spirit of Norma’s 1831 premiere than I could ever be in the KenCen Opera House. CP