Wednesday, October 4, 2017

An Operatic Play Date with Dinosaurs

Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt
On Site Opera
The American Museum of Natural History
September 29, 2017

A play date with Rhoda and in the hall of dinosaurs
Photo credit: American Museum of Natural History, R. Micken
Composer John Musto and librettist Eric Einhorn have teamed up to bring a delightful little family friendly one-act opera to the American Museum of Natural History. At roughly twenty minutes in length, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt tells the story of a real life little girl who nurtured a fondness for her grandfather who was a real life pioneer in the field of paleontology.

Rhoda's favorite place in the whole world
Photo credit: R. Micken
When the opera begins in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, we are introduced to the inquisitive eight year-old Rhoda who adores nothing more than spending time at the Museum of Natural History. By the looks of the large crowd of children who hung on her every word, she is not alone in her love of the place. The kids were all thrilled to be there, particularly in the dinosaur wing. The whole spectacle really warmed the heart.

Rhoda then took us to see her grandfather Charles Robert Knight who was about to begin work on a new commission from the museum director, Dr. Henry Osborn. A new fossil has been unearthed and they need Rhoda’s help to bring the creature to life by putting together the pieces of its skeleton and completing an illustration of what it might have looked like. A real challenge for an eight year old!

Over the course of Rhoda’s struggle to help solve the mystery of what the whole skeleton might look like, she goes through a series of emotions, mostly because she really doesn’t want to disappoint her beloved grandfather and the director of the museum who are both counting on her. She gets down on herself momentarily because it seems like too arduous a task for her meager skills and experience.

But alas, she overcomes with the prodding of the scientists who encourage her to look within. She has everything she needs to overcome the obstacle, they assure her. All she needs to do is marry her imagination to her rational faculties of scientific inference and the answer will be in reach. If it’s that easy, then the opera makes it look like it’s something we all can do!

Rhoda gets her assignment
Photo credit: American Museum of Natural History, R. Micken
Never would I have thought that singing things like “scientific inference” might sound good set to music, but Musto’s score overturned any doubts I might have had. He set the whole thing in a pleasant package for a small chamber orchestra, consisting of half a dozen strings, flute and clarinet, that was pleasing to the ear and inventive. It had peaks of emotional drama that drew on a classical musical vocabulary but also made a foray into a rhythm and bluesy harmony in the climactic trio when the three singers exult having accomplished their mission together, with Rhoda’s heroic help.

Rhoda has to overcome self-doubt
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The whole show was such a feel good outing that it was hard not to come away with a great big smile on your face. And the kids all seemed to react in much the same way. They scurried around behind Rhoda as she led them from one display case to another where she modeled the behavior of an observant young mind alive in the world.

Rhoda's enthusiasm is infectious
Photo credit: American Museum of Natural History, R. Micken
Soprano Jennifer Zetlan charmingly embodied the curious youngster with a bright-eyed freshness that was quite simply infectious. She has a timeless youthfulness that was fun to watch in action and that really spoke to the kids.

Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt is smart and inspiring and puts on display exactly what the world needs more of right now: demonstrations of the pursuits of the humanities fitting into the work of the hard sciences like a hand in a glove.  

– Lui

The Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs provides the backdrop
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

Worlds Collide Amidst the Renoirs

David Hertzberg’s The Wake World
Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O17
Barnes Foundation
September 23, 2017
World Premiere

Is this real life, or is it just fantasy?
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
The Wake World was commissioned for Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O17 as a site-specific work to be staged in the very special Barnes Foundation museum (which is wonderful, by the way, and deserves a visit to Philly on its own right). The audience was encouraged to roam around the museum for an hour before the beginning of the performance. The sense of anticipation was palpable and we were not disappointed, as sure enough some strange individuals started popping out in the various museum rooms, walking around and checking out the paintings as normal museumgoers. Except they were wearing all blue, pink or grey outfits with matching face paint, or else they looked exactly like characters in some of the paintings, in a way suggesting that they just popped out of the art work.

Strange occurrences in the galleries shortly before curtain
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
When the opera finally started, however, it was not in the exhibition portion of the museum, but rather in the Annenberg Court, a large hall immediately adjacent to the galleries themselves. A bit disappointing, as it would have been terrific to have the characters go through their journey amongst the actual paintings. Admittedly, however, that would have presented insurmountable logistical challenges. The immersive side of the performance was very strong even in the large hall as the audience was free to walk around and follow the singers as they moved on the long catwalk. I have to say that there was something very special about being so close to the singers (and to the composer and director, both of whom followed the action along with us, almost like characters in the show) as they performed.

Some characters seem to have descended from the paintings
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Director R. B. Schlather brought some striking ideas to the staging of composer David Hertzberg’s surreal and fantastical (though ultimately pointless) riff on a wild and wacky short story by the sometimes-mystic occultist writer Aleister Crowley. I say riff because he slapped a sort of prologue onto it, swapped out the overall naive and playful tone of the original (ostensibly a tripped out children’s story) and replaced it with a more dramatic overall melancholy tone of moping. Most of all he gave it a spin by endowing it with something recognizable as an ending, which was perhaps the most poetic, most visionary and potentially most moving part.

The monochrome people look like brushstrokes
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
At the end of the roughly ninety minute long one-act opera, the Fairy Prince suddenly reveals himself to be a shapely woman with luscious long flowing locks of hair. He who is now a she (though, as they say these days, gender is just a construct anyway) appears on the end of the catwalk in a stunning translucent nightgown with an armful of flowers and sings a song of longing and love for her now absent Lola. Then Lola appears with her own armful of flowers and in a matching translucent slip for their big very wide-awake world reunion in the afterlife, presumably. The way the two of them glow in the light of their love for one another is also as though they have actually shed their mortal human clothing and transcended the earthly plane to become angels. The moment has no analogue in the original story but was among the most satisfying passages of the opera.

Let the ghostly frolicking begin
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The apotheosis is complete once the two frolic off together and end up running into the distance, out the exit doors, and into the garden of the Barnes Foundation, literally out into the “real” world outside, beyond the panes of glass where they dance like woodland ghostlike creatures by the scenic reflection pool. What does that make the wake world? And the wide-awake world? And the world after death? Which is which? The mystery remains an open question, in this respect, not unlike the Crowley story, which ends with a reference to a serpent eating its own tail – the classic insoluble knot, the conundrum to end all conundrums.

While Crowley utilizes Lola’s transhumance as a commentary on the habits of mind (like those forged by conformity and social conditioning) that make us who we think we are, Hertzberg seems to be less concerned about the construction of the self and more concerned with the spirit or the soul.

A dreamlike encounter in the prologue
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Hertzberg also ups the ante on the poetic register. The texture of Crowley’s prose is rather plain and Lola’s narrative voice is intentionally confident but naive and playful. The entirety of Hertzberg’s text is almost overly ornate, full of archaic and rare aulic terminology and rife with alliteration more often than not. Which is not a characteristic of Lola’s first person narration in the original text at all.

The bog behind this stooping brow
Hath its measurements congealed.

Say what? Several of the Dream characters, a couple of whom seem to reference figures found in the paintings in the museum, especially the two bedraggled men in the prologue, speak with pseudo-archaisms as in this bit quoted above. Or else: “The patch, she devoureth herself.” (Huh?) Their verbs end with Shakespearean -th suffixes and are paired with doth’s and hath’s and shalt’s. Many made up words abound, especially those that have a peculiar pseudo-antiquated flair.

And find faultless joy in phlegm unstained.

Allegorical introductions and farewells
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco 
(Huh?) However, when Lola begins speaking in the early segment called, “II. The Beginning,” all of the hifalutin gibberish goes out the window. This is where the Crowley story begins and we seem to enter the world of the Fairy Prince’s palace proper. Very little, if anything, was done to intimate the space of a palace. Aside from a catwalk that ran the length of the long rectangular Annenberg Court, the large reception hall where visitors congregate to enter the Barnes Foundation, there was no set to speak of. Instead Hertzberg created an otherworldly place out of his use of shards of language and an immersive sound experience that was brought to life by the Opera Philadelphia Chorus. Words repeated and syllables alliterated in the construction of phrases that unfolded into what could possibly pass as sense or meaning.

Strangers, why do you stand there
Smiling softly in sinister silence?

Soprano Maeve Höglund in the principle role of Lola, “the key of all delights,” sang her heart out and eventually sang her clothes off and her silky skin and her bones. Her character seemed to get her vestments from one of the Renoirs in the collection, or else Alice in Wonderland for the adult crowd. It was definitely Höglund who buoyed the whole show with her charismatic presence as well as her singing. Her muscular soprano pined with longing, lusted with feeling, was conflicted in her desire and worked through many surreal doldrums and other abstractions along the way.

The Fairy Prince toys with his plaything
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The Fairy Prince was sung by mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb who played “him” as a sort of Annie Lennox or mid-1980s Madonna in drag as a man in a three piece double-breasted suit, hair pulled back and wielding a gentleman’s pipe. Chaieb cut a commanding figure as she toyed with her little plaything mostly from afar. A cloud of gender-stereotyped behavior hung heavy over their interactions. At one point little Lola grovels at her Fairy Prince's feet for whose dear indulgence she supplicates as she grabs his knees.

The torment continues
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
There was even a woman dressed in a full body flesh-colored jumpsuit who looked like a Renoir nude, complete with the eroticized knee high white stockings and red high heels. She seemed to have stepped right out of one of the Renoirs that Dr. Barnes, in one of his elaborate symmetrical wall compositions, paired with a still life of bulbous apples that recall the female form in one of the sensory overload rooms in the galleries through which we were invited to wander in anticipation of the start of the opera.

For all the vagaries of the libretto and its improvement upon the source material, Hertzberg’s score constituted a highly sophisticated piece of music. It was suggestive and dreamy and beautiful in every bar. He never reverts to strange or jarring dissonance just for the sake of creeping the audience out. Musically he creates ambience, a stunning sense of space and place. It was incredibly listenable. Hertzberg’s music definitely takes you places – flashes of Debussy, maybe, and Saariaho, only without the cacophonous weird bits.

This man plays the "blue room"
(whatever that means)
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Most of all, I thought of Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle, perhaps mostly in terms of its enigmatic narrative structure and its unsettling palatial architecture, musical and otherwise. Like Bartòk, Hertzberg’s score as well as his libretto keep you on the edge of your seat in wonder. Where is he taking us? What does it all mean?

The shame it seems to me is that such visionary and refined talent continues to be wasted on such superficial and shallow projects. Audiences are hungry for real depth and emotional breadth. They can wrap their minds around challenging and complex material when the mind of the creator rises to that level and gives us something of substance to grapple with, yet so many of our contemporary composers give us trifles.

Singers like these are also capable of delivering an even greater range of emotions and of inhabiting more complex dramatic scenarios than the relatively monotone ramblings composers frequently give them to communicate.

There are lessons to be learned from the repertory that musicians and singers in circulation at the moment know and play well. Why have we lost the sense of a Norma, for example? A character who undergoes a real journey not only through disappointment and great adversity but also through the whole range of human and musical emotions. There is something to be recovered from the soprano assoluta role, even if she is not composed as the Everest of opera.

This Alice is a little lost lamb in her wonderland
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Hertzberg is one of the most exciting composers experimenting with narrative musical forms that I have encountered of late. I’m eager to see where his talent evolves and where his vision takes him. I hope he manages to marry his highly articulate flights of fancy with something that is also rooted in the ground of an even more fleshful human experience. If The Wake World is any indication, Hertzberg has it in him.

– Lei & Lui

The reflection pool at the Barnes Foundation with a Wake World installation
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

"The Language of the Wake World is silence," Aleister Crowley
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Die Fantastik Silver Screen Flöte

Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte)
Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O17
Academy of Music
September 22, 2017

Wolfie goes to the movies.
Photo credit: Robert Millard
Lui: What if Pamina were a Louise Brooks silent film star, Tamino her dashing tuxedoed beau, and Papageno reincarnated as Buster Keaton with a mean whistle? The Queen of the Night a giant spider, her ladies three pouting flapper witches! Monostatos a dead ringer for Nosferatu and Sarastro something like the man behind the curtain from the Wizard of Oz...

The Queen of the Night as a giant knife throwing spider
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Lei: With these reimagined characters, 1927’s fantastic production comes to the Opera Philadelphia Festival O17. We had seen videos of it but the live performance surpassed every expectation – a pure delight from start to finish that managed to jazz up Die Zauberflöte with an exciting design and concept. After all, this is the perfect opera to go crazy with. Considering the imaginary world it already conjures, the sky is really the limit! Paul Barritt’s animations enlivened the whole thing and were always tons of fun, all while matching the musical rhythms and illustrating the key plot points in energetic and spellbinding ways.

Tamino flees the dragon with the help of projected legerdemain
Photo credit: Craig Matthew
Lui: The set was literally a vertical blank canvas, a white wall for the uber-imaginative projections, with singers positioned all over, from stage level to mid air, thanks to a few little revolving platforms, so that often the characters just happened to materialize out of thin air.  

For the most part, the scenes conjured by the creative team were unpredictable and dynamic, all while (sort of) keeping the overarching contrast between the magical mysterious world of the Queen of the Night (dragons, enchantments, dangerous creatures) and the rational more “civilized” universe of Sarastro (populated by men in top hats and intricate mechanized creatures).

Monostatos sicks his dogs on the captive Pamina
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia 
Lei: No words can do justice to the sheer pleasure of this production. It must be seen to be appreciated. However, among the most memorable moments I would include: the opening scene of Tamino hyper-kinetically running away from a charging dragon; Pamina and Papageno making their escape by jumping from one rooftop to the next in their flight from Monostatos; the magic bells that transform threatening wolves into can-can dancing fools by conking them on their heads; Papageno flying around with Walt Disney’s Dumbo-inspired pink elephants after drinking several big pink cocktails; the use of deep sea scenes for the water trial and of a fire monster during the trial of fire (a monster who is then turned into a big puppy by the power of music) and so on. The highlights just don’t stop.

The terrifying guard wolves become dancing can-can girls
Photo credit: Minnesota Opera
Lui: The production did a terrific job of pacing the projections with the music, including during the most lyrical and contemplative love arias when time stops. In Act I, when Tamino pours his heart out for his beloved, he is alone in alone in a corner, with smoky lines of female figures slowly and sinuously tracing themselves out against the background as he sings. And when it is Pamina’s turn for her big longing aria in Act II, she is also alone encapsulated in a snow globe, as if to symbolize the lonely winter of her heart when she feels abandoned by her beau.

Pink elephants feed Papageno massive pink cocktails
Photo credit: Iko Freese
Lei: Some animations completely reinvented elements of the opera: the “magic flute” is turned into a little flapper fairy in the nude who produces flowy bars of music whenever she flies around. The silver bells given to Papageno are a troop of headless doll-like chorus girls who jump around in formation anytime they are unleashed. Nutty. But often also so very funny. In a way the power of those two special musical instruments is symbolized by sassy female energy – why not?!

Papageno and Papagena are fruitful and multiply
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Lui: But, some projections also closely traced the libretto, as when in the famous Papageno/Papagena duet an animation of a dollhouse appears in the background and, as they start to sing about mating and breeding a bunch of kleinen Papagenos and Papagenas, the house begins to sprout children in every room until it is crawling with little ones in a veritable army of a happy family.

The magic flute is now a little naked fairy who emanates musical notation
Photo credit: Komische Oper Berline
Lei: The singers weren’t entirely up to the task but the performances were nevertheless electrifying and fast paced. One common plague of The Magic Flute are the German singspiel passages that often come off so flat and empty in a standard production and usually feel like unnecessarily long-winded bits that just drag endlessly on and on.

The silent film intertitles enliven the singspiel doldrums
Photo credit: Craig Matthew
The 1927 production team solved for this issue with the genius idea of drastically reducing the spoken bits of dialogue and replacing them with silent film-style intertitles. The content of those obnoxious singspiel narrative interstices was boiled down to a minimum amount of text projected, in the form of very creative text art, directly onto the big screen wall and were accompanied by additional pieces of Mozart piano music.

Trial by fire!
Photo credit: Robert Millard
Lui: During these interludes, the singers were mugging in true silent-movie style with hilarious results. Also, hearing snippets from Wolfie’s fantasias for piano reutilized, as a silent film soundtrack, was thrilling. This approach also worked great in this new context, felt filmic and added another dramatic layer to the drama.

Lei: The Magic Flute has never been so much fun! I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, wondering what they would come up with next, often finding myself laughing in exhilarated wonder, blown away by the clever inventiveness of the production team. Refreshing and reinventing the canon? Yes, please!

– Lui & Lei

Things also get surreal
Photo credit: Craig Matthew
The three pouting flappers of the Queen of the Night
Photo credit: Craig Matthew 
It's good versus evil and that's not always so clear cut
Photo credit: Robert Millard

Druid and Roman Gods Align for a Spectacular Met Gala

Bellini’s Norma
Opening Night Gala
Metropolitan Opera
September 25, 2017

The gods align for the greatest opera about female friendship
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: I always arrive at the Met opening gala with a mix of trepidation and excitement, but this time even more so since Bellini’s Norma is easily one of my favorite operas – I was preoccupied about being disappointed by a cast not up to snuff or a lackluster production. While I can suffer through a mediocre Wagner as season opener, a butchered Norma is definitely a bad omen for the year to come.  

Lui: Thankfully, the Druid and Roman gods aligned as this turned out to be possibly the best Norma I’ve ever seen live. Musically spectacular and dramatically solid, this production delivered the most exciting opening night of the last eight years.  

The sacred forest has dreamlike qualities
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: Replacing the Met’s prior minimalist production of Norma, Sir David McVicar went back to the basics with a naturalistic and potentially more historically accurate interpretation. While this approach may have seemed uninventive at first blush, a closer look revealed it to be rife with interesting details and thoughtful choices, all perfectly executed. The sets designed by Robert Jones were lush without being overwrought and best of all they were dynamic, moving vertically between the forest and Norma’s domestic den, making for majestically swift scene changes.

Lui: The sacred forest that provides the backdrop for most of the grand scenes seemed a generic dark woodsy place at first. But, as the action evolved it turned out that all of the trees moved, oneirically sliding in several directions, expanding and compressing different spaces. Equally magical were the twilight effects of the sunrays dancing through the somber forest, as if filtered through leaves we could not see.

A model of Norma's womb-like abode
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: Norma’s home was encircled by womb-like walls of mud and wood that produced a rustic earth-goddess effect. As with the rest of the sets, the richness of detail was striking: a pot bubbled over a fire, a loom stood to one side alongside several orderly storage urns, as well as a small altar with candles, and a cozy bed adorned with animal furs.

But perhaps the most spectacular touch was in the finale, when the fire of the pyre on the horizon reverberated with dancing orange lights, creating an infernal background for the dark shadows of the characters on stage.

Lui: During the overture, we see Oroveso and a group of Druids carrying several dead warriors on stretchers and mourning their losses. This set the tone for the Druids being in a losing war with the Roman oppressors, creating from the get-go a highly polarized background against which the many dramatic tensions of the opera played out.

The priestess harnesses her chaste goddess
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: During the prayer Casta Diva, Adalgisa takes a prominent role in the ritual, right next to Norma. She takes her hand, which emphasizes the closeness of their professional relationship that, too, will explode in the love triangle to come.

Lui: In McVicar’s vision, the unholy priestess and her entire coterie (except for Joyce DiDonato’s embodiment of Adalgisa) are all hyper-sexed up. Her attendants are all earthy and legs and flesh and writhing around, often on the ground. Norma too in her introductory prayer presents herself on her raised altar-like stage as a Dionysian force of nature. She lays out on her back with her legs spread and chest open toward the moon in a gesture of harnessing its power. And it was a very powerful take on the character.

Adalgisa stands by Norma's side
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: The costumes by Moritz Junge were also aiming at some historical accuracy, with simple monochrome tunics for Norma and Adalgisa and the usual Roman armor for Pollione. What really stood out here though was the chorus, as McVicar delivered the most chthonic take on Bellini’s Druids I have ever seen. Finally someone is willing to take a risk on conjuring a bit of the Dionysian in our genteel days. I get the feeling we have the influence of Game of Thrones on the current gestalt to thank. The chorus of bloodthirsty tribal warriors was HBO-worthy, torches, hog head and mud-stained exposed flesh and all.

Whenever the warrior Druids and their wild women were on stage they were a force to be reckoned with, emanating visceral energy from every pore as they constantly hoped that Norma would allow them to unleash their fury (and when she finally does, their Guerra! Guerra! really goes all out with fire, war dances of intimidation and more).

But most important of all, musically everything worked beautifully under the baton of maestro Carlo Rizzi. The entire cast was on point, with not a single weak link.

Sondra Radvanovsky comes into her own as Norma
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Sondra Radvanovsky has decidedly grown into the role. Since the last time we saw her as Norma, she has matured into an even more well rounded singer and artist. Tonight she was warmer, more expressive, more powerful and even more subtle in those tenuous and tender voiced moments. She was a star.

Joyce DiDonato also exceeded all my expectations. I have long been a fan but have grown accustomed to hearing her sing either the lighter more playful bel canto repertoire or the high baroque. In this meatier more dramatic role she really showed off her bel canto chops and elevated every one of her duets with the majestic Norma. Plus she and Radvanovsky had real chemistry as friends.

A moving story of female friendship takes flight
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: The opera presents one of the most moving representations of female friendship in the repertory, but these two women and their obviously sensitive souls brought it to a whole other level. Musically their duets were executed with the utmost care and craft and their body language expressed just how intimately in sync these two characters are. The appeal of Norma lies also in its profound feminine core.

Lui: My only qualms were that DiDonato was the only one who didn’t seem to belong. With her perfectly blown out, close-cropped modern hairstyle, she seemed like a page boy who wandered out of a different opera, rather than a member of the otherwise dramatically bedraggled Druid holy women. It’s a minor detail, but her solar blonde locks shone out against the drab landscape of these moon worshippers like a sore thumb, albeit a drop-dead gorgeous one.

Lei: Matthew Rose as Oroveso was effortlessly potentissimo, earthy yet very musical. Acting-wise he exuded a refreshing warrior-like vigor that is rather uncommon in the character who is more often is played as a frail elderly man. Rose blew me away and I will definitely be looking forward to hearing him again.

Pollione owns his women
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: The Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja was a terrific Pollione. It apparently takes a Mediterranean tenor to get a Roman Druid-ladies’ man right. Calleja’s Pollione was cocky, entitled and unapologetic. Often harshly grabbing Adalgisa or Norma by their necks so as to bend them into submission, he strutted around in his Roman garb and acted like the kind of impossible jerk who in too many instances is apparently so irresistible to women. Vocally, Calleja’s tenor was in great form: warm, sunny and seductive, with excellent phrasing and perfect control both in his solo arias and in the many ensemble parts.

The Druids channel the Dionysian in their war dance
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: No matter how many Normas I’ve seen, I just can never get enough of it, not least of all because every time I learn something new or I discover an angle I hadn’t considered before. This time, perhaps due to the very lively chorus who eagerly awaited Norma’s direction, I was particularly struck by how disgraceful of a public figure the Norma character is. She effectively betrays her people and her duties as a spiritual and political leader for the love of a man who just also happens to be one of their most charismatic enemies. Even worse, she uses her powers to either protect or punish her lover and father of her children, potentially to the detriment of her fellow Druids.

Lui: But, this is also what makes her such a complex, deeply human and even relatable character. Her internal conflicts and weaknesses but also her ultimate honesty and redemption. When in this production Norma tenderly embraces Pollione in front of her baffled countrymen, she is a bad priestess, yes, but also a woman who is ecstatic to regain her man’s affection and is not afraid of loving passionately, even if that means death.

The pyre blazes with the persona non grata dons the black veil of disgrace
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: In the finale, Norma gets covered in a black veil before turning her back to the public and proudly walking to the stake hand in hand with her lover, not as a martyr but as an empowered bride, all while her betrayed people basically curse her:

Vanne al rogo! Ed il tuo scempio
Purghi l’ara e lavi il tempio!
Maledetta estinta ancor!

Hence to the pyre! May your last breath
Pacify our altar and our temple.
Malediction after life have power!

Lui: Whereas in other productions this moment can be played with a certain melancholic remorse that comes off as an affectionate fondness for the fallen priestess whom they are forced to reluctantly execute, here it came off scathing and hostile with an undertone of defeat rather than melancholy. These were the words of a betrayed people who still have impossible odds to face in the days ahead. Thus the tragedy was heightened.

The Druids are thirsty for Roman blood
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: With this Norma the Met went back to the basics, with a traditional risk-free production, which most importantly allowed the beauty of Bellini’s music and emotional charge to shine in all its glory. When the basics are as divine as Norma (a perfect dramatic and musical masterpiece), the basics done right are all you need – nothing more, nothing less.

And that is a good omen for the season to come.

– Lui & Lei