Bellini’s Norma opens Met season

The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2017-2018 season with Bellini’s Norma, arguably one of the grandest operas in the standard repertory. No, it’s not scenically grand like Verdi’s Aïda or Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, though this new production by Sir David McVicar counts as barbarically grand I guess, a crude lot roaming about the moonlit forest in dark fur costumes brandishing swords, pikes, torches and firing up a funeral pyre to light up the finale, not much different really from your basic national, religious, racial good guy/bad guy conflicts in other grand operas, Aïda and Huguenots, for two.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma sings  Casta Diva

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma sings Casta Diva

But regardless of the sets, the costumes, the arsenal, and the FX, Norma, the opera itself, is emotionally grand, this new one in particular. It’s all you’d want in a Norma and more.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky gives a complete Norma through her voice and body language, lending emotional truth to the many temperaments her character passes through over the course of the drama. Norma vascillates, wow! does she ever: She swings mercurially from one decisive extreme, loves ‘im, to another, hates ‘im, then back, loves ‘im again as long as he takes the high road, let’s make peace with the Romans, no way, slaughter ‘em all, no, wait, achieve peace in our time. She is not alone: Pollione, a Roman cad, also a proconsul, actually the cause of all the turmoil, and sweet Adalgisa, a sometime virgin, are no better. Norma’s father, too, a real softy, flip flops always in the right direction.

An obvious approach for any newcomer to Norma, reinforced by scads of highlight discs and complete recordings, is to luxuriate in the exquisite bel canto vocal writing Bellini has given us. A Norma done well is a tour de force of great singing, a daunting challenge to any singers who undertake it. The new Met production scores very highly on the vocal dimension, as detailed below.

Norma and Adalgisa bond. Joyce DiDonato is Adalgisa

Norma and Adalgisa bond. Joyce DiDonato is Adalgisa

But the plot is equally important: Norma, like Puccini’s Tosca or Wagner’s Brünnhilde, is caught in an ever-tightening vice due to shifting allegiances. The long beginning, like the opening of a chess match, is leisurely in its development: the Druids wish to rid their land of the occupying Romans, but it’s too early for a victory. Norma, the actually not so chaste diva, the lovely aria Casta diva notwithstanding, is revered in her position of High Priestess of the Druids; she is quietly supported, in this production, by a cautious Adalgisa in the opening ceremony. As an aside (Ah! bello a me ritorna), Norma wishes for the return of Pollione, the Roman, the father of her twin boys. Prior to this, Pollione himself speaks of his dream of love for Adalgisa, who, we learn, has longings for him, but also misgivings. He promises to take her back to Rome. Adalgisa reveals her fall from grace to Norma, who, remembering her own love, is at first sympathetic, but understandably shocked to discover it’s the very same Pollione at fault.

In Act II, Norma could have pulled a Medea number here: kill the children, also the unfaithful Giasone, and burn down the house, but she relents, whew! because Adalgisa claims that Pollione realizes his love for Norma. Adalgisa and Norma make a sisterly bond in one of the more heavenly duets in all opera. Of course this doesn’t last.

Norma tragically assumes responsibility for her actions

Norma tragically assumes responsibility for her actions

Suffice it to say that as Act II progresses, as the vice around her tightens, Norma is faced with a number of hard choices. She might betray Adalgisa to the cruel Druids who seek revenge for the violation of their alter. Pollione offers to kill himself to save the young priestess. Pressured, but doing the right thing, Norma reveals it is she who has sinned, that she deserves a fiery death on the pyre.* Pollione, realizing his deeper love for her, accompanies her hand in hand on this final journey, which begins only after Norma’s father, Oroveso, promises to take care of her children.

Why so much plot here? Because the impact of the opera is far greater if the Norma sings beautifully and dramatically, but also visibly suffers this ever tightening vice before our eyes. Sondra Radvanovsky sings and suffers to great effect. Whereas my previous sopranos** in Norma were marvelous to listen to, this season brings the total package. Brava!

Equally affecting is the Adalgisa of Joyce DiDonato. She is a softer character, but sincere in every aspect of the role. Her uncertainty with Pollione’s plan to return to Rome, her confusion on learning that Pollione and Norma were a ‘thing’ once, and her sisterly bonding with Norma are all done well, and as these involve duets and trios, DiDonato makes for a strong vocal partner as always. Joseph Calleja is Pollione, tall and strong, not particularly subtle dramatically, but always in fine voice. Matthew Rose is a fine Oroveso, Chief of the Cicambri and Father of Norma (just FYI). Adam Diegel is Flavio and Michelle Bradley is Clothilde.

Carlo Rizzi conducts the score with, I thought, a fine vigor, soft when necessary, but big and grand when needed. Musically this Norma is first rate, ranking on my list of great performances at the Met.

Norma rages against Pollione. Pollione is Joseph Calleja

Norma rages against Pollione. Pollione is Joseph Calleja

The McVicar production reminds one of several of his previous successes: straightforward, atmospheric, mood appropriate scenic effects, no nonsense distractions and in general with direction as taut as can be expected in this genre of opera. Most telling are the interactions of the main characters, but the choral scenes are animated by action. Robert Jones’s sets are moonlit dark, though with good shadows, lit by Paule Constable; Norma’s hut wherein lie her children, the only other scene, is effective, if very large. The Met’s stage elevator is put to good use.

Reviewed performance: October 3, 2017

Photos: Ken Howard

*Arthur Schopenhauer found truth in Norma, and Richard Wagner, who conducted Norma several times in his early career, found inspiration in Norma, later confirmed by his reading of Schopenhauer during the composition of the Ring and Tristan und Isolde. In Volume II of Die Welt als Wille und Forstellung, Schopenhauer writes: “It should here be mentioned that the genuinely tragic effect of the catastrophe, the hero’s resignation and spiritual exaltation produced by it, seldom appear so purely motivated and distinctly expressed as in the opera Norma, where it comes in the duet Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdisti [between Norma and Pollione in the final scene of Act II]. Here the conversion of the will is clearly indicated by the quietness suddenly introduced into the music. Quite apart from its excellent music, and from the diction that can only be that of a libretto, and considered only according to its motives and to its interior economy, this piece is in general a tragedy of extreme perfection, a true model of the tragic disposition of the motives, of the tragic progress of the action, and of tragic development, together with the effect of these on the frame of mind of the heroes, which surmounts the world. This effect then passes on to the spectator; in fact the effect reached here is more natural and simple and the more characteristic of the true nature of tragedy, as no Christians or even Christian sentiments appear in it.” (The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, Vol. II, p. 435-436, Dover publications, 1966).

**My previous casts for Norma at the Met sported Joan Sutherland (with Marilyn Horne, John Alexander, and Ivo Vinco) in 1970, Montserrat Caballé (with Shirley Verrett and Bernabé Martí) in 1976, and last, in 1979 with Shirley Verrett as Norma (with Elena Obraztova, Carlo Cossutta, and Paul Plishka). All three performances, particularly the women, were musically thrilling, but not particularly insightful, dramatically speaking; all three were staged in the then new 1970 production (now, with the Met’s 2017 new production, twice replaced). I wouldn’t trade the memories of these three for anything, but this season will complement the set nicely and more.

I love this opera, a relationship that has been growing since my first recording of the opera in stereo with Maria Callas. Nice beginning of a new season! Don’t miss it. Prep for it.

Bust of Maria Callas as Elisabetta in  Don Carlos  in OperaMetro's main hall

Bust of Maria Callas as Elisabetta in Don Carlos in OperaMetro's main hall