Today’s topic of conversation is the Royal Opera House’s 2016 production of Norma by Vincenzo Bellini, libretto by Felice Romani. The production was directed by Àlex Ollé and conducted by Antonio Pappano.
The opera first premiered in Milan in 1831. Norma takes place in Roman occupied Gaul. The Gallic people, led by the Druid Oroveso (Brindley Sherratt) are planning an uprising against their Roman occupiers. The eponymous character, Norma (Sonya Yoncheva), is a Druid high priestess who has broken her Druidic chastity vows to be with the Roman proconsul, Pollione (Joseph Calleja). They have two children together, a secret closely guarded by their confidants Clotilde (Vlada Borovko) and Flavio (David Junghoon Kim). Pollione has set his sights on a new flame: the young Druidic priestess Adalgisa (Sonia Ganassi), whom he hopes will go with him to Rome.
This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.
Associate director: Valentina Carrasco
Set designer: Alfons Flores
Costume designer: Lluc Castells
Lighting designer: Marco Filibeck
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Francis: In retrospect, we could have started off with a version that’s less strange.
Traxy: This is true, yes, but on the other hand, Norma was one of the most recent ones we watched, and you were quite excited by the prospect … before we started.
F: Yeah, because I thought you’d really like it.
T: It does star a druid priestess, that’s definitely something I’d be into.
F: And it was composed by a Sicilian.
T: And yet …
F: And yet. The costumes were a … bold choice.
T: I get wanting to update it and make it more relevant to modern day, but it just doesn’t work. Not for me anyway. Locals dressing up like paramilitary troopers, druids dressed like Catholic priests, and Romans in business suits – I mean what?!
F: And then there are the school uniforms and the Ku Klux Klan garbs.
T: I thought you’d go “well, actually, they’re capirotes, it’s a Catholic thing”.
F: Do I look Spanish to you?
T: Not especially?
F: Do I look Catholic? … Let me rephrase that. When did I last go to church?
T: Presuming you mean of your own accord, as opposed to specifically attending a family function? Uh. I haven’t got a clue?
F: A long fucking time ago.
T: Point being?
F: I used to be a choir boy and even I associate those hoods more with the Klan than I do the church.
F: So it ain’t a good look is what I’m saying.
T: And we’re supposed to be rooting for these people as well.
F: Are we? Not all of them. Two of them were Pollione and Flavio. Do we really root for those guys? Sorry, I mean, do we really root for Pollione?
T: Sort of?
F: He’s an asshole!
T: But caught up in passionate love affair with two different women.
F: Two different women who are meant to have devoted their lives to their religion, and yet were seduced by him. He fathered two children with Norma – who knows what he would have done to Adalgisa given time!
T: Okay, yeah, I may be a little biased because I liked the guy who played him.
F: Ya think?!
T: I did really like Joseph Calleja, though. What a voice! I never thought I’d see the day where I’d have a favourite opera singer.
F: He’s a great choice, I gotta hand it to ya. A modern day Caruso.
T: Most people would probably have used Pavarotti as an example, not a guy who died a century ago.
F: I ain’t most people. And back in his day Enrico Caruso was considered the cream of the crop. The fact that you know about him in 2021 speaks volumes.
T: C’mon, I’ve been hyperfocusing on the 1920s for over a year, of course I’ve heard of him, it goes with the territory.
F: Just sayin’.
T: Calleja actually played Caruso in a film. The Immigrant, from 2013. It’s on Prime. – Wait, it’s on Prime?! It wasn’t last time I looked!
F: We’ll look at that later. Just like we will the production of Norma from the Met Opera, which also has Joseph Calleja as Pollione.
T: But set in a suitable era, so we don’t get the cognitive dissonance of seeing women dressed up like Catholic priests.
F: Why cognitive dissonance?
T: Because the Catholic church specifically exclude women from being priests. They’re really into their priests being celibate. I mean sure, the druid priestesses were supposed to be celibate here as well, that much is clear, but women as Catholic priests when they can’t be, and by a religion that has subjugated them for centuries? Not to mention the Inquisition and what that did to women?
F: Hence why the clothing choices don’t work.
T: That’s exactly why. It becomes super strange, and then they clearly still worship their old gods.
F: On a stage full of crucifixes.
T: On a stage full of crucifixes! It’s just bizarre!
F: So to summarise: we expected a tale of a Gallic priestess in love with a Roman proconsul, and what we got was—
T: A lot of Catholic-looking things, including a big censer swinging about. I didn’t like it.
F: Would it have made a difference if they had changed it around to be something else entirely?
T: So that she wasn’t a druid priestess and he wasn’t a Roman official? Like Romeo and Juliet was updated to become West Side Story?
T: I would probably have preferred that, to be honest. Now it was more like Romeo + Juliet, which was Elizabethan prose with modern outfits, which I also wasn’t keen on. Either update everything to fit modern day or keep it all in the past the way it was written. At least that’s my take on it. Turns out I’m not keen on these half-modernisations.
F: If they’re all like this then no, neither am I. However, there were some good parts to this as well.
T: Yes. The music.
F: And the singing. Although you weren’t entirely sold on Norma herself the first time?
T: I think I preferred Adalgisa’s voice the first time. Can’t remember why exactly. On a second viewing I didn’t feel the same way. At all. They were both really good.
F: Could it be that you were too hung up on the details the first time, so it was easier to find more things to critique, even if it was unwarranted?
T: Good shout. I mean the whole show seemed a lot less weird the second time, for that matter.
F: Because we knew what to expect. We didn’t have to sit there and wonder what the fuck, so instead we could focus solely on the performances – which is what we’re interested in anyway, right? The rest is just window-dressing. What does it matter what people are wearing or how they’ve dressed the stage when we’re there for the music?
T: True, the musical talent should really be the focus, and there’s a lot of musical talent going around.
F: Speaking of music, what did you make of Bellini’s score?
T: There was nothing in there I recognised, so everything was new. There were some wonderful melodies, but I don’t think I could tell you what any of them were called. Then again, I also don’t speak Italian so it’s harder to remember any titles.
F: Casta diva is the most famous aria from it.
T: Sure, but I haven’t heard it enough before to go “ohh, so this is where that’s from!”, you know?
F: Perhaps you need to watch it more times?
T: Well, there is still that Met Opera version …
F: But let’s stick with this one for now, yeah? The one we’re supposed to be discussing.
T: Hah, okay.
T: Well, the singing was very heartfelt.
F: It should be! You have a woman torn between killing her children or sparing their lives, you can’t sing that without being heartfelt!
T: Hard not to have a lot of emotions around the fact that there’s a guy with whom you were so passionately in love that you broke your chastity vows – a crime apparently punishable by death – and had two children with. And then he dumps you for a younger model!
F: The heart wants what it wants.
T: His dick, more like. I’d say it’s two women fighting over a guy, but that isn’t really true, is it?
F: No, because they’re not fighting each other. Norma is torn between hoping things will work out between him and Adalgisa, and when she doesn’t want him, she wants him back for herself. Not to mention Adalgisa wanting to sacrifice her happiness for the sake of Norma’s. There is a lot of wanting to sacrifice one’s happiness all around.
T: For a guy.
F: Because of a guy.
T: And the ending’s changed, did you notice that?
F: You mean how Norma managed to get shot instead of throwing herself on a pyre? Yeah. It also conveniently left off Pollione jumping on the pyre with her.
T: Which adds to the “I’m sorry, what?!”-ness of the whole thing. I’m not sold on it, I have to say. It just made it seem like an accident that she was shot, not that she deliberately sacrificed herself and her lover following her so they can be together forever.
F: Let’s watch the very end again to see what happens. For the sake of argument.
Turns out Pollione is led away and Oroveso puts a gun to the side of Norma’s head and shoots her. She dies in her father’s arms.
T: Right. That’s even worse than I remembered.
F: They sing about the pyre and how her sacrifice will wash the altar and temple clean, and then she dies from a gunshot wound?! That sure as fuck ain’t right.
T: The only way this version works is if you have zero prior knowledge of Norma as an opera. Unlucky for me then, I guess, as I like to read along with the synopsis on Wikipedia to make sure I don’t miss anything.
F: Which is how you know how it’s supposed to end, compared to how this actually ends, despite having never seen it before.
T: Unlike you.
F: Yeah. Some artistic license is to be expected, and no production is going to be an exact copy of another, but when they change the meaning of the story in the process I just don’t get it.
T: Neither do I. It’s like the ending of Jane Eyre 2011. Because they decide to skip basically everything and just have Jane and Rochester reunite with a mere “it’s me, I’m back forever”, you miss out on exactly how much she clearly chooses to stay with him. It throws off the whole power dynamic of the ending, makes her passive instead of active. Instead of making a statement it simply becomes a “and then they lived happily ever after”, entirely missing the point of the story.
F: Yeah. It really ain’t much of a sacrifice if someone else straight up shoots you before you have a chance.
T: No, exactly.
F: Through Norma sacrificing herself to the fire, she can cleanse the temple. Through Pollione’s sacrifice going after her, they can be together forever in death. But if he’s being led away and she’s dying after her own father shot her, neither of them are redeemed. Instead of ending on a high note, it ends with an anticlimactic whimper. Someone shoots her because she did break Druidic rules – which requires punishment, sure – but it becomes a simple execution, not a sacrifice.
T: I really need to see another version of this for comparison, but I agree. It seems the point gets lost in translation.
F: So. To summarise: you weren’t impressed by this version, and neither was I. I enjoyed the singing, you particularly liked Mr Calleja, but the staging was distracting and they changed the ending so it didn’t make sense. Would you agree?
F: So let’s finish this discussion, watch the Met version, and then we can get back to discussing Norma again a bit later. How does that sound?
T: I think that sounds excellent. Will that be the next topic for discussion?
F: No, let’s break it up a bit. Next time we’ll do Il Trovatore.
T: Cool. Looking forward to that.
F: Me too. A presto!
T: Are you trying to establish a new catchphrase?
F: That’s for me to know and for you to find out!