Nineteenth-century opera audiences clamored to see a steamy mix of religion, sex and death. Vincenzo Bellini gave it to them with "Norma," which tells the final episode of a love triangle involving two Druid priestesses and a Roman soldier. Norma is honorable and vengeful; her rival, Adalgisa, is youthfully innocent; the guy is merely a wretch, a cad from a faraway place.

The Summer Opera Theatre Company opened "Norma" Sunday evening at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre. John Lehmeyer's new production stuck with the traditional, the nonsymbolic, the near-grandiose. If his singers indulged in what one person described at intermission as "silent-movie acting," it was balanced with three principals healthy in voice and direct in communication.

Susan Foster, as Norma, sang in full, bright tones and seemed to increase in power over her upper registers; matters of diction and attention to long-spun phrases were less polished. "Io fui cosi," the Act 1 duet she sings with Adalgisa (Deidra Palmour), was nicely balanced and almost ecstatic in delivery.

In many ways they made a tighter match together--more like mother and daughter than rivals--than with the object of their attention, tenor Jorge Orlando Gomez, whose soft baritonal sound was wrapped in a constant, sweet vibrato. He was underpowered when singing beside his lady friends, and without the same vocal focus (or ability to hit high notes squarely); one couldn't be sure what all the romantic fuss was about.

No great truths are revealed in this "Norma," but it all adds up to an engaging show. Performances run through July 25.

CAPTION: Susan Foster sings the title role in Summer Opera Theatre's "Norma."