Washington DC’s Norma: Good Opera, Bad Theater

United StatesUnited States V. Bellini, Norma: Soloists, Washington National Opera, Daniele Rustioni (conductor), WNO Orchestra, 12.3.2013 (RRR)

Director: Anne Bogart
Set: Neil Patel
Costumes: James Schuette
Lighting: Christopher Akerlind
Choreography: Barney O’Hanlon

Norma: Angela Meade
Adalgisa: Dolora Zajick
Pollione: Rafael Davila
Oroveso: Dmitry Belosselskiy

Picture courtesy Washington National Opera, © Scott Suchman
Picture courtesy Washington National Opera, © Scott Suchman

Tuesday evening, the Washington National Opera presented a vocally splendid but dramatically inert version of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. The production seemed to harken back to an earlier era of opera when the star singers simply planted themselves down-stage and sang with minimal regard for acting or the other dramatic verities. The drama was solely vocal, rather than fully theatrical.

Soprano Angela Meade, who sang the title role, first gained acclaim in a concert version of Norma. It is easy to understand why. She has a very powerful voice which she can deploy in almost any shade. She especially excelled in “Casta diva”, in her vocal duets with Adalgisa, gloriously sung by mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, and in the exchanges late in the second act both with Norma’s father, Oroveso (and Norma’s erstwhile love), Pollione. She showed no sign of fatigue from her very taxing role.

The singing was so good that the production values actually distracted from it. What one heard was so superior to what one saw that a concert version of the opera would actually have been preferable. The program suggests that much of the bias against bel canto opera had been based on questionable premises, “especially the assumption that the style always required musical values to overshadow dramatic ones”. It may have been quite unintentional, but that seems to have been the operating principle of this production. The evening’s musical values were not just the singing, either, but also the Washington National Opera Orchestra’s fine playing, under the supple and energetic direction of the young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni.

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V.Bellini, Norma,
R.Muti / Maggio Musicale Fiorentino / J.Eaglen et al.

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V.Bellini, Norma,
T.Serafin / La Scala / M.Callas, F.Corelli, C.Ludwig et al.

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V.Bellini, Norma,
R.Bonynge / Welsh NO / J.Sutherland, Pavarotti, Caballé et al.

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V.Bellini, Norma,
J.Levine / New Philharmonia / B.Sills et al.

In terms of production problems, let us begin with the set. On far stage left, there stood what looked like a wall from Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, with rectangular windows of various sizes set in it. On far stage right, there seemed to be a construction site—a plain wall against which rested a tiny forest of long naked 2×4 beams. In between was a steeply raked floor that undulated like a surface from a Frank Gehry building, with a large hole in it—off center stage left—which just about guaranteed an impeded flow of dramatic movement. On the back wall upstage was a huge painting of a series of crude halos—purportedly emanating from the light of the moon? This stark geometry failed to convey any sense of place or time—certainly not Gaul, 50 BC, during the Roman occupation. The predominant gray reinforced the impression of an anywhere-wasteland. If the Druids in Norma were supposed to be nature worshipers, there was nary a sign of nature in sight, except for the holly sprigs that the Druid priestesses occasionally carried. Everything else had decidedly inorganic, sterile look. The lighting was the only thing that broke the visual drabness, if not the monotony.

The costumes for the Druids were in flat fall colors, except for the priestesses who, jarringly, wore pure white and moved about more as if they were worshiping Isis than a Druid deity. They looked like they wandered in from another set. Only Norma and Adalgisa were given attractive garb with decorative touches. The Romans had standard breastplates and helmets except for their leader, Pollione, who was inexplicably caparisoned in a leather trench coat with epaulets, circa 1920. What was the purpose of this sartorial solecism? Let us hope it was not to “universalize” the message of the opera… a message, which, incidentally, has very little to do with the matriarchy/patriarchy theme featured in the Director’s Note, and everything to do with the themes of infidelity, betrayal, and their consequences—which go unmentioned. Costume designers should not raise questions to which the production does not provide answers—unless the intention is to puzzle the audience.

The action on stage had no dramatic tension. In part, this was the fault of the singers, few of whom bothered to act. Rafael Davila was able project vocally as Pollione, but he did not possess sufficient gravitas to carry off the role. He is both spoken of as “trembling” and speaks of himself as “trembling”, so it would have helped considerably if he had trembled at all, or had at least acted as if he were trembling. It was like a throwback to the olden days of opera, as has already been noted. Most of the cast were guilty in this respect, with some exceptions that will be noted later.

Some of the staging did not help either. I have no problem with placing a Roman soldier in an aperture high up in the Le Corbusier wall while the chorus in the opening scene is venting its spleen and plotting against the Romans, but why have the chorus look up at the soldier at the time they are doing it? It would seem to suggest that not only does the Roman soldier know about their plotting, but that they know that the Roman soldier knows. What is the point of that, other than to imply that the Druids must be incompetent to plot in front of their enemy?

In the duet between Norma and Adalgisa early the second act (performed fabulously by Meade and Zajick), they sing of their inseparable friendship and undying unity. While doing so, they moved to opposite sides of the stage. That produced a great stereophonic effect, but made little dramatic sense.

In the scene which preceded this, in which Norma comes close to killing her two children, there was no credible dramatic tension at all. The children were placed center downstage, lying on the floor boards (no hint of a bed or bedroom), as if they were asleep. Norma raises the knife, takes several steps toward them, then they wake up and she stops. Surely this moment should produceat least a hint of a frisson. There was none.

However, all was not lost in this respect. Norma sparked to life late in the second act when a Roman is reported to have violated the temple sanctuary. Norma’s vengeful calls for torrents of Roman blood and destruction were not only well sung, but dramatically credible. The pleading exchanges between Norma and her father, Oroveso, capably sung by Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, were also convincing. If only Davila had had a greater sense of dramatic presence, the marvelous duets between Norma and Pollione near the end of act two would also have worked in this way (though they were not wanting vocally).

The orchestra captured all the drama and played the sunrise music toward the end of the second act with shimmering delicacy. Its members and conductor Rustioni were every bit as much the stars of the evening, as were Meade and Zajick. The Washington National Opera Chorus sang superbly throughout.

If the starkness of this production and its histrionic deficiencies did not mesh well with Bellini’s highly decorative vocal style or the period he was attempting to evoke, there’s still a way to appreciate it. Sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy.

Norma plays through March 24.

Robert R. Reilly