Tuesday, October 3, 2017

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

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