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Norma: The Druids Arrive in Los Angeles
December 14, 2015
When Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma opened in Los Angeles last month, the production was roundly criticized, or at the very least damned with faint praise, although the singing has been universally lauded. Timothy Mangan, of the Orange County Register, praised the singing, but seemed to disparage the opera itself, finding the story and libretto “creaky” and “basically an excuse for beautiful singing.” Richard Wagner would not have agreed with Mr. Mangan, at least when Wagner was young and less a germanic chauvinist than he later became. In his youth, he conducted Norma and even wrote an aria with chorus for Oroveso, the bass, to substitute for the aria that Bellini had written for him. Wagner wrote that the opera was like a reincarnation of ancient Greek tragedy and an unusually fine marriage of text and music. Apparently, the same facets that Mr. Mangan found to be sleep-inducing (“Drink coffee beforehand”), Wagner found to be revolutionary, and like Classical tragedy: “The action, free from all theatrical coups and dazzling effects, reminds one instinctively of a Greek tragedy. ...Every emotional moment stands out plastically; nothing has been vaguely put together.”
Norma tells the simple story of a Druid priestess in northern Gaul during the Roman occupation. Although she is sworn to chastity, she has had an affair with the Roman Proconsul Pollione, and has borne two children by him. Now Pollione has tired of Norma, and is in love with her acolyte Adalgisa. Adalgisa, knowing nothing of Norma’s relationship with him, has fallen for him too. The merda strikes the Druid fan, so to speak, when Norma discovers what Pollione is up to. When Adalgisa is unable to convince him to return to Norma and his children, Pollione plans to abduct her from the Druid temple, but he is captured in the act. Norma, after trying unsuccessfully to get him to yield, decides to punish Adalgisa by revealing that she has been unfaithful to her vows of chastity and to punish Pollione with death. But at the last moment, she cannot overcome her realization that she is the guilty party. She confesses, and goes off to her punishment (immolation) hand in hand with a now repentant Pollione.
Written at the height of the Romantic period, in 1831, Norma is a surprisingly Classical work. The opposing forces in the story are ancient Romans (Classical) and celtic Druids (Romantic), and in both drama and music, Norma really is a unique fusion of fierce Classical simplicity and tragic structure with a Romantic emphasis on emotion, especially melancholy and longing (what Wagner called sehnsucht), in which a strong, ennobled woman triumphs through death and brings her lover along with her. No wonder Wagner was attracted to the opera.
The librettist, Felice Romani, Bellini’s favorite collaborator and indisputably the best of his profession in the first half of the nineteenth century, thought of himself as a Classicist rather than a Romantic. Norma shows a sure sense of theater and classical proportion. His libretto generally eschews the kind of overwrought emotionalism that one finds in tragic Donizetti or early Verdi (or Victor Hugo or Lord Byron). Norma, based directly on a brand new hit play by Alexandre Soumet (Paris in 1831, the same year as the opera), is thoroughly founded in Classical drama, especially Medea. Euripides’ heroine, like Norma, is from an exotic race (Colchians for her, Druids for Norma); she too is trapped when Jason, her lover and the father of her children, tries to drop her for a new bride. To punish him, Medea slays her own children by Jason; Norma tries to kill her children too, but she cannot do it.
Thus the dramatic structure and the story of Norma hark back to ancient tragedy, but with a major difference. Medea, in a bloody rampage, does kill her children as well as Jason’s fiancé, and then she escapes, leaving a broken Jason to bemoan his fate. Norma, on the other hand, about to accuse Adalgisa of breaking her vows of chastity, admits instead that she is the guilty one, and goes to her death with Pollione, who at last sees her as a “sublime donna.” Medea is the vengeful witch of Classical mythology, driven mad by jealousy and betrayal. Norma rises above her jealousy and betrayal to go nobly to self-sacrifice, an act which moves even Pollione to join her in death. For the Romantics, Norma was an idealized woman--the ‘eternal feminine’ which leads us on.
If the drama is largely Classical in structure and story, the poetry is Romantic, and it was the poetry that was of paramount importance for Bellini. He tells us that he would recite the words over and over until musical inspiration came to him because he aimed for a complete fusion of word and music. He was very demanding about the words too; reportedly, he asked the frustrated Romani to write and rewrite “Casta Diva” nine times before he was satisfied. Anyone with the rudiments of Italian will understand how beautiful the poetry often is, and how Romantic. It is certainly much better than the typical “librettese” of the period. Take the most famous aria, a prayer to the Moon Goddess:
Casta diva che inargenti
queste sacre antiche piante
a noi volgi il bel sembiante
senza nube e senza vel.
(Chaste Goddess who ensilvers/these sacred, ancient plants,/Turn your beautiful face towards us,/cloudless and without a veil.)
It is simple, direct and lovely. Even more beautiful is the Italian poetry of the final, great ensemble when Norma begs her father to care for her children before she heads to her death: “Deh! non volerli vittime/Del mio fatale errore!” (Ah, do not make them victims/Of my fatal mistake!). In these and other moments in the opera, the poetic and musical lines merge in a way that is very rare indeed. If Romani was “Classical” in the restraint of his drama, and in presenting a taut, flowing story, he was a Romantic when it came to his poetry.
Musically, Bellini also fuses Classical restraint and Romantic feeling, most often an intense melancholy or nostalgic longing. The “Classical” part can be heard in his long, long melodic lines and in the preference he gives to andante or even largo (slow and slower) musical structures. Bellini is never in a hurry to get anywhere musically, quite contrary to Verdi’s quick finales (e.g.Traviata or Trovatore) and his emphasis on melody is quite the antithesis of almost all modern “classical” music (“classical” with a small “c”). Another Bellini “Classical” characteristic is his emphasis on declamation in the the vocal line--expressing the exact sense of the word through his melody.
For most of the last century and more, the ‘received wisdom’ has held that while Bellini had an innate gift for composing wonderful melodies, he was deficient in the technical side of music, especially instrumentation. Late in life, even Verdi enunciated this view: “Bellini is weak...in harmony and orchestration, but rich in feeling and in a sense of melancholy all his own. Even in the least well known of his operas... there are long, long, long melodies such as no one before him had written.” As for the “weak orchestration and harmonic structure,” twentieth century studies have shown that the seeming simplicity of the orchestration is deliberate; early Bellini operas had more involved and daring orchestration than his best known works, Norma, La sonnambula and I puritani. Bellini deliberately backgrounded the orchestra so that those “long, long, long melodies” would dominate and carry the operas musically. Early in his career, Bizet was commissioned to “modernize” and give more complexity to Bellini’s orchestration for a revival of Norma, but he gave up after trying. “For those melodies,” he is said to have declared, “the orchestration is perfect.”
No Romantic composer understood Bellini better than Chopin, who asked to have some Bellini songs performed for him as he lay on his deathbed. Chopin, of course, is a very Belliniesque composer. In his pre-curtain talk, James Conlon, Music Director of LA Opera, declared that bel canto opera and early Verdi are the hardest operas to conduct, harder than the whole Ring. If the singing is not top notch, there is no way a conductor can cover up and provide the “energy” to save a performance; on the other hand, it is very easy for a conductor with a heavy hand to ruin a well sung performance. Restraint, Classical restraint is necessary, even in the orchestra.
If the operatic music of the last hundred years relies primarily on the orchestra (Wagner won on that one), Bellini relies primarily on the voice and on vocal melody--beautiful, restrained melody. Everything else takes a back seat, and without singers who can do justice to his melodies, Norma and the other Bellini operas will fall flat. Norma defines bel canto, and without that ‘beautiful singing’, it is just a collection of pretty tunes, and we might as well turn to the intense and complex orchestration of a Britten, a Berg, a Henze or a Reimann.
Norma is the Everest that the very best sopranos try to climb, first of all because of its emphasis on the voice, but also because it demands wonderful technique, intensity of feeling, superb acting ability, and Classical dignity. Very few singers have it all. Mangan is right that Norma’s milieu is different from our modern nano-second, sound-bite, violence-laden, quick-cut sense of what entertainment is. (Go to see LA Opera’s wonderful Magic Flute production in February or March for those contemporary qualities.) Norma’s ravishing melodies take a long time to spin out and to sing, and Bellini is always at his best in slow (andante} passages like “Casta Diva.” Even his cabalettas tend to be slower than most. Compare “Casta Diva”’s cabaletta “Ah! bello a me ritorna” to Verdi’s adrenlin-pumping “Di quella pira.”
Norma is an Everest for an opera company to climb too, and on the bel canto front Los Angeles Opera did pretty well. Two young singers took the roles of the unwitting rivals in love, Norma and Adalgisa, and Angela Meade and Jamie Barton are pretty much the best we have for these roles today. I have followed Meade since 2008, when I saw her at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, her alma mater, singing Anna Bolena. She remains a wonderful bel canto artist, with surprising depth to her voice and superb technique. That said, her Norma was not flawless on December 10 (the penultimate performance), not as good as I remember Joan Sutherland in this most difficult of roles, in the 1970’s. (Maybe memory has scrubbed some of the flaws from Dame Joan’s performances, but I doubt it; and she had Marilyn Horne at her side.) Barton, the winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition a couple of years ago, was equally good as Adalgisa, although her top notes were a little shouted, a little harsh. On the other hand, her low notes were indeed World Class, as was her technique. It is interesting to note that Bellini composed Norma and Adalgisa for two sopranos--Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi--and although Meade and Barton are technically soprano and mezzo, they can clearly stray into each other’s ranges: Meade had wonderful low notes and Barton had high ‘soprano’ ones, no matter what the vocal classifications might be. In Bellini’s day the compartmentalization of vocal categories was not so fixed as it is today.
What both Meade and Barton lacked was a deep emotional commitment to the roles, or perhaps an inability to express their emotions adequately--or weak direction. The singing was beautiful, but it would have been just as good in a concert setting. (Some said the same thing about Dame Joan’s performances.) In Russell Thomas, LA Opera had an exceptionally good Pollione, usually a thankless role. Thomas delivered his Act I nightmare aria “Meco all’altar di Venere” with appropriate agitation, and, also appropriately, repeated his cabaletta. More important, he was a worthy partner to the ladies in his duets, trios and ensembles. Morris Robinson was deep-voiced and powerful as Oroveso, Norma’s father. Lacey-Jo Benter was good in the minor role of Clotilde, too. It is worth remembering that Joan Sutherland debuted at Covent Garden in this role, to Maria Callas’ Norma.
The stage production, which came from Washington National Opera, is another matter. It is really too bad that LA Opera (and Washington Opera) surrounded such a beautifully sung performance with such a drab and static production. Neil Patel designed an ugly unit set. On the right was the Los Angeles Men’s Prison--oh, excuse me, a Roman fort. On the left was (apparently) a Druid fort built from two-by-fours straight from Home Depot; the unused lumber was stacked against the “fort.” The stage floor looked like the warped wooden deck of a ship; in the middle was a large round, lowered area which looked like one of those “Conversation Pits” from the 1970’s. In fact Norma and Adalgisa held several “conversations” (aka duets) whilst sitting on benches in the Pit. Nowhere to be seen was the sacred oak called for in the libretto (maybe all that Druid lumber was oak). There was a cartoonishly large moon, which rose really fast in the last act, and, predictably, turned red when Norma and Pollione go off to die their fiery deaths.
Costumes by James Schuette were lackluster too--purchased in a druid-era thrift shop. You know you are in trouble when your High Priest and soldiers all carry pieces of lumber that are supposed to resemble pikes or staffs of office. Ms. Meade and Ms. Barton are large ladies, and the last thing I would think a costumer would want to do is emphasize their girth. And yet, both wore a sort of triangular chain-mail decoration over their stomachs which called attention to their size. Pollione was given a big black leather great coat with epaulettes which made him look more Nazi than Roman. Barney O’Hanlon provided amateurish choreography for some willowy Druidettes dressed in white nightgowns. Duane Schuler’s lighting was rudimentary.
Worst of all was the stage direction of Anne Bogart, who must have decided that the best way to do bel canto opera was the way it was done in the days of Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940)--bring singers to stage apron, plant feet and sing directly to audience. During duets, she seems to have instructed the singers to look anywhere except at each other. Angela Meade is no great actress, but she can act if well-directed, for example in the Met’s Falstaff. Even the excellent chorus was shuffled in, stationed statically, and marched out without any interaction. It was as if Maria Callas or Renata Scotto or Mariella Devia or Anna Netrebko had never showed us that bel canto opera can be just as dramatically convincing as any other type. If the HD cinemacasts have taught us anything, it is that opera can and should emphasize drama as well as song.
James Conlon gave one of his usual enlightening pre-opera talks, and walked directly into the pit to conduct, and quite sensitively too. No problem with him ruining the singing. The edition used did make some cuts of cabaletta repeats and of the beautiful “peace” passage which ends the angry “Guerra” chorus in Act II.
I began my Norma evening with a superb slippery shrimp and Szechuan chicken dinner at my favorite Chinatown restaurant down the hill from the Music Center, but I had no need for coffee to stay awake in spite of Mr. Mangan’s admonition. Next time, though, please give us a production that is worthy of the singers. The production we got was not worth the money to haul to the West Coast from D.C.
Norma Curiosities: If one googles “Norma” as a female name, one finds that its popularity stems from the use of the name in the opera, although the name itself first appears in the twelfth century as a female version of “Norman,” as in “Northman,” another word for the Vikings, and it is not inappropriate for a Druid priestess on the northern limits of the Roman Empire. Since Norma is not a common name before the opera, all Normas are in a sense the progeny of Bellini’s tragic heroine. Norma Talmedge (the silent film star), Norma Shearer (the star of the twenties and thirties who remade Norma Talmedge’s most famous film, Smilin’ Through), and Norma Desmond, the fictional star of Sunset Boulevard, whose character is loosely based on Talmedge, are all the great, great, great grand daughters of the Druid Priestess. The operatic Norma also lent her name to the famous Sicilian pasta dish (“Penne alla Norma”) made with eggplant and ricotta salata (Bellini was from Catania, Sicily, and is buried there; the pasta dish was named to honor Catania’s native son). If one googles “Casta Diva,” one finds numerous restaurants, cafes, and a movie company named for the famous aria. There is even a company in Spring, Texas, that specializes in sexy corsets for women named Casta Diva. Such a wide progeny that “Chaste Goddess” has! (Maybe the corset company supplies a model with a chastity belt so that the wearer can live up to the meaning of the famous prayer.) Norma--the opera--is not done so often because of its enormous vocal demands, and great Normas are rare indeed. We are lucky to get one every now and then, and Angela Meade certainly falls into that class, at least vocally. But if movie actresses, a pasta dish, and even a corset company in Spring, Texas, have borrowed a name or an aria from the opera, Norma is more a part of contemporary culture than most critics imagine. In spite of bad reviews for the production, the opera house in L.A. was full, and there were many young people and many patrons of different races and cultural backgrounds. I would guess that many of the college age folks sitting around me in the Orchestra did not pay the sky-high ticket price that I had paid, but I have no trouble with that if it brings in the new audiences that opera sorely needs.