Joan Sutherland in her final staged performances of "Norma!" The temptation was too great.

To be a groupie is not in my nature, and hero worship comes hard to me. But wave in front of me a reasonable chance to hear Sutherland in one of her great roles, and I'm off and running with the pack. She's a diva among divas, an indestructible woman and artist whose mastery of a phenomenal natural endowment has earned her deserved pre-eminence.Sutherland first sang Bellini's "Norma" in 1962, and has since performed the Druid priestess 124 times, including her definitive performances at the Met in the early '70s with Marilyn Horne.

But her four Normas with Opera Pacific at the Orange Country Performing Arts Center during February were valedictory, and tears filled her eyes as she bowed to cheering fans last week.

Opera Pacific apparently let out all stops for this "Norma" - a wise judgment for a swan song of such proportions. (The production was shared with Michigan Opera Theater of Detroit, of which David DiChieri is also general director.)

In designing and directing his beautiful new production, John Pascoe deferred to the original intentions of Bellini, as shown in sketches for the 1831 premiere. Hence the Druid priestesses wore not white robes, but gowns with nipped-in waists and voluminous skirts, dropped necklines and sleeves that ballooned below the shoulders. Floating draperies, twining flowers and leaves suggested the nature worship of pagan Gaul.

Similar sylvan touches adorned the colorful robes of the priests, with soldiers of the Roman occupation in ornate gear. Temples and other backgrounds of barbaric splendor were overhung by magic oak and mistletoe.

All of this would be to no avail, were Sutherland not up to the vocal challenge of this killer among bel canto roles. During the past 30 years I have known it to damage several overly-ambitious sopranos - whom I could name, but charity bids me draw the veil. Sutherland's nearest competitor would be Maria Callas, who actually revived the bel canto repertory, and was a peerless Norma dramatically. Yet vocal ruin also overtook her, and she only sang the role for about 10 years.

Sutherland's Norma begins where most singers leave off. Her big, glorious dramatic coloratura is ideal for it, and seemed little ravaged by time. A few high notes quavered, but mostly they were true as arrows, and her stamina, her majestic person, her understated acting supported by the emotion of her singing, left one with the impression that she could do years more of the Druid priestess. And as she well understands, that's the time to let go.

Notable in the supporting cast was Nova Thomas as Adalgisa, an American protege of Richard Bonynge, who sang up to Sutherland in the critical duets, and showed warm, flexible mastery of the bel canto style. Georgi Selezneev, a deep, stentorian basso of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater making his American debut, heroically projected the high priest Oroveso, if a little aggressively for American tastes. As the Roman pro-consul, Pollione, Cesar-Antonio Suarez showed a large tenor voice, but wooden acting with little bel canto style.

Yet chorus and orchestra, led with perfect rapport and pacing by Bonynge, gave an evening to file among your memory's treasures; the sort of performance that you pull out at brag sessions with sentences that begin "In 1989 I saw . . .

If Sutherland had held to the Wagnerian course that she set during her early career, she might not have become unique. (Actually, she may not be so far off course with "Norma," a heroic opera that Wagner greatly admired; and Norma's death by fire may have inspired Brunnhilde's Immolation.)

Nonetheless, her union with Richard Bonynge and their 40 years together, both personally and artistically, assured her uniqueness. He understood her voice, and she accepted his tutelage. He found the great bel canto music and she sang it, while he conducted. Artistically they have been like two vines intertwined, drawing from each other the inspiration to climb; now they seldom perform unless she's on stage and he's in the pit.

Also playing last weekend at Opera Pacific was "The Barber of Seville" by Rossini, in a good workmanlike production, with Pablo Elvira as Figaro, Judith Forst, Carroll Freeman and William Fleck. Utahns will recall basso Stephen West, who played a funny Don Basilio. The production was entertaining, directed by former Met star Rosalind Elias, but staging in six rooms on two levels of Bartolo's cutaway house finally proved too busily exhausting.