Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reviews “Norma” at the L.A. Opera through Dec. 13.
A statue of Vincenzo Bellini stands in a square in downtown Naples, Italy that bears his name. The statue is surrounded by broken green beer bottles and the piazza is filled with the sounds of students practicing in the national conservatory nearby. The young composer’s bronze face — Bellini died at age 34 — looks a bit perplexed by all that shattered glass and ambitious, studious noise.
If he’d been moved to the Dorothy Chandler lobby Saturday night, perhaps Bellini would have broken into a big smile. That’s how fine the L.A. Opera’s performance of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece “Norma” was to listen to. But if Bellini had somehow entered the auditorium and seen the production, he might have had some reservations.
“Norma” is first and foremost a women’s opera. It demands two massively talented, extremely durable sopranos to sing the lead roles of the druid priestess Norma and her acolyte and partner Adalgisa. All three roles were brilliantly sung in the production by youngish singers at the top of their powers: Angela Meade, Jamie Barton and Russell Thomas.
The tenor Pollione is a caddish Roman proconsul of post-Julius Caesar Gaul and is the first protagonist onstage. Yet, Meade’s performance is the triumph of the opera. Bellini structured his opera in just two acts — a huge Act One and an abbreviated Act Two.
The first act centers on one of the greatest arias of all time: Norma's “Casta Diva." The aria is the priestess’ evocation of a chaste lunar deity. Meade's pacing in the aria is magnificent; she begins to sing in just a whisper, then builds to a mighty crescendo. The chorus joins her in a plea for peace between her people and the Romans. (Little do the other Druids know that the Romans' leader, Pollione, is the father of two of Norma's children. Yes, it’s complicated — or as Bellini put it, "passionate.") Norma is certainly in love with the despicable seducer Pollione, whose life she seeks to spare by preaching peace.
But the true passion is building between Norma and her assistant Adalgisa, for whom she is subsequently dumped by Pollione. (One wonders where librettist Felice Romani picked up such names that evoke neither ancient Gaul nor ancient Rome). In a soaring, sentient Scene 8 duet, Norma helps Adalgisa unpack her woeful new relationship’s travails only to discover that the girl’s recollections sound all too familiar because Pollione is the seducer. When Pollione appears, the three sing a trio so involved and beautiful it could itself define Bel Canto opera. Next, Adalgisa turns against Pollione. The women stand together against their defiler at the end of Act One after almost 90 minutes of pure, continuous melody. Now we wait for Norma’s revenge.
How, you wonder, can the composer outdo such a remarkable first act? But he does. Norma decrees she must die for her sins. Pollione — perhaps improbably — volunteers to join her. It’s a tragedy, but probably no two people looked happier about being burned alive than Norma and her restored swain. The moon rises over the orange implicit flames and what might be the greatest Italian serious opera before Verdi ends.
Pollione's character may be downplayed in the opera when compared to Norma or Adalgisa, but Russell Thomas at his L.A. Opera debut sang the role with immense strength and presence. Bass Morris Robinson, who has played Mozart’s sage Sarastro, was impressive in his similar, stabilizing role as Norma’s archdruid father, Oroveso. I also liked mezzo Lacey Jo Benter as Norma’s confidant and de-facto nurse, and sprightly tenor Rafael Moras as Pollione’s well-intending friend Flavio. In fact, the entire cast was wonderful, as was James Conlon as conductor, the orchestra’s performance and Grant Gershon’s chorus.
If only the production had been as pleasant to look at as it was to hear! There, "Norma" failed across the board. The mysterious oak grove meant to dominate Act One was a clutch of potted house plants. The costumes also left something to be desired — some of the druids looked like Brueghel peasants, others extras from a Christmas pageant. Pollione wore an epauletted leather trenchcoat that made him look like a Soviet tank commander. The attractive dance company did more posturing than dancing.
One could go on. But in short, a powerful musical presentation was let down by the visuals.
If you see Bellini wandering around the lobby, try to keep him out of the auditorium.