Vincenzo Bellini only lived to be 33 (what is it about composers that so many of them die so early?) but his outpouring of passionate melody and his influence on bel canto, which dominated Italian 19-century opera, were both prodigious. And several of his works, La Sonnambula, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, I Puritani and, of course, Norma, are, for good reason, a regular part of the programming of most of the great opera houses.
The opera was last performed at the Liceu in 2007, with Fiorenza Cedolins and Sonia Ganassi in the exhaustingly demanding roles of Norma and Adalgisa, and this year it has returned to even greater effect with Sondra Radvanovsky and Ekaterina Gubanova. Gregory Kunde sang the role of Roman proconsul (hero? villain?) who is the root of all the misery in this over-the-top story. Radvanovsky and Gubanova are superb individually and form two halves of a perfect whole when they sing together. The role of the proconsul Pollione is relatively small but dramatic.
The music flows like a lavish fountain. Melodies pour out and intertwine endlessly. The opera, and particularly the second act, is a musical feast.
What it is not, is a drama that is easy to stage. And for this reason I am not criticising the stage direction in this production. It was elegant, almost rational, and not strikingly out of context. But I have now seen four different productions of Norma and have come to the conclusion that it is best heard as a concert performance. There is so little action and so much talk that much of the stage choreography has to be imposed with little regard to the actual events. People troop in and out, process across the stage, climb onto odd and superfluous vehicles simply to provide activity rather than to further the plot. And the director really cannot be blamed for this because it is an all-talk, static opera. The drama is all in the music.
It is difficult to feel sympathy for the characters. It is a tragedy, yes, but one caused mainly by lack of responsibility. One can mourn for the heroines in Tosca or Traviata, struck down by events beyond their control. But how easy is it to respect Norma? She is the religious and patriotic leader of the Gauls, struggling as they are, under the Roman occupation. She is also the leader of the vestal virgins. But for years she has led a double life: making decisions that affect all her people while carrying on a long affair with the Roman proconsul Pollione and producing two children. (How she managed to get through two pregnancies unnoticed is evidently something that the author and composer, both male, did not consider hard to explain.) In the second act, she baldly orders peace and then war, simply to get back at Pollione, who has deserted her. Her tragedy is her own weakness, elevated into operatic drama for the occasion.
Pollione is a standard romantic villain; a menace to women. Having used up his affection for Norma, he has no difficulty in falling for the younger, nubile Adalgisa and convincing her to give up her vows and come away with him to Rome. Adalgisa, is the most sympathetic of the trio but still not a beacon of duty and responsibility.
It turns out, too, that Norma owes her post to nepotism—the leader of the Gauls, Oroveso, is her father. That might be her best excuse: that she had no choice in the assumption of her role. But, all in all, they are not a very sympathetic bunch.
But the music…that is another matter entirely. I could sit and listen to it again and again. And I hope anyone reading this will be persuaded to get tickets.
There are two casts: the first, with Kunde, Radvanovsky and Gubanova, performs on February 11th, 14th and 17th. The second, with Andrea Carè, Tamara Wilson and Annalisa Stroppa, will appear on the 12th and 15th. I can vouch for the first, but have not heard the second.
The production is a collaborative effort between the Liceu, the San Francisco Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Canadian Opera Company. The stage director is an up-and-coming young American, Kevin Newbury. His palette of colors is elegant and full of dignity; shades of grey and blue predominate. The costumes, by Jessica Jahn, are in no way disturbing to the historical context, though they are hard to place. There is, however, something odd about the men marching around in leather and fur and what look like baggy jeans, while the women are all in woolen evening dress with bare upper arms and above-the-elbow matching gauntlets. Rather cold for an average day in northern France, when their men appear comfortable, bundled up.
But the music, the music………!!!