The second act of Bellini’s Norma contains two dramatic twists—one an act of solidarity and the other an act of self-immolation.
After revealing that Druid priestesses Norma and Adalgisa are each secretly in love with Roman proconsul Pollione, the plot hinges on what the women will do next: Will they turn on each other? And will Norma pull a Medea, as suggested by the myth that haunts the opera, killing her children and her lover’s new flame?
Norma—largely through the esprit de corps shown by the young acolyte Adalgisa—ultimately escapes Medea’s turn to outward destruction. If Medea is a fantasia on female rage, Norma is a meditation on what it means to live up to one’s own ideals, even—or especially—after compromising them.
Adalgisa, the opera’s second heroine, engineers the first twist by revealing that her loyalty lies with Norma in a moment of radical love that transcends her feelings for Pollione. Norma’s heroism is not so immediate–or as straightforward. She loves the Roman proconsul, but more than that, if Pollione leaves her for Adalgisa, she will lose everything: her status, her children and likely her life. His is more than just a romantic betrayal. Pollione is an enemy of the Druids, making Norma a traitor to her people.
It’s important to show Norma as a potential Medea, and not just because the Met invited the comparison by opening the season with that particular myth. Audiences need to see the love-scorned Norma lash out at Adalgisa and contemplate infanticide to understand the power of the final choice she makes as she teeters on the edge of being defined totally by her rage and thus losing herself.
In the opera’s second twist, Norma avoids this fate by offering herself up not to the Druid god Irminsul but to the goddess she prays to in “Casta Diva.” Norma earns its devastating ending more than many bel canto tragedies. Once she betrays her people, there can be no happy endings for Norma, only various tragic ends–some noble, others less so. In her final moments, Norma reclaims her identity, singing “Norma does not lie” as she ascends the pyre to commit what is not just an act of self-immolation but also an act of self-definition. She becomes whole again, and in so doing, reaffirms her love for Adalgisa and her people.
Sonya Yoncheva is no stranger to the role, having sung it previously at the Royal Opera House, but nonetheless had a weighty task on her hands singing Norma at the Met. Norma is an infamously difficult role vocally while also being one of the most complex and tragic operatic heroines. Yoncheva’s Norma looks and feels young, with little of the imposing gravitas of a high priestess. Instead, the soprano gives us a character on the edge of collapse.
Her “Casta Diva,” sung at a punishingly slow tempo, is more puzzlement than perfection, with odd phrasing choices and breaths where they don’t belong. The Italian is often obscured or lost entirely. Yet in nearly all subsequent scenes, we see an artist more firmly in command of her instrument and capable of releasing a plush and pliant sound that plays especially nicely with that of her co-stars, even if that voice never fully settles. Yoncheva improves as the night wears on, delivering a final scene worthy of her character.
Unfortunately, Sir David McVicar’s direction often has the titular Norma lurching around, as if made into a rag doll by her emotions, denying the character dignity and making her movements appear aimless–something that translates to the entire production. The chorus suffers especially from this lack of apparent direction. The woad-covered Druids had little meaningful to do and plenty of onstage time in which to do it, resulting in a lot of milling about and playing with swords.
Throughout the show, characters avoid eye contact during climactic emotional moments, moving back and forth without clear motivation, and side characters pull focus from leads with their fidgeting and pacing. There is some striking imagery—the stage elevator into Norma’s home, which looks like the inside of a chic beaver dam or an especially ritzy tumbleweed, is appropriately fabulous, as is the burst of color at the beginning of the third act—but these visuals tend to blur into a paradoxical bland splendor. There is much to look at, but it is not always clear what we are supposed to actually see in all the grays, blues, browns and russets.
As the Druid leader, Christian Van Horn slips into the role of Oroveso with ease, though McVicar’s blocking harms him above all other leads because his scenes universally involve the chorus. He looks perfect in the part, however, and is in fine voice; his opening scenes reveal a more flinty, brittle edge to his tone, but he hones it into warm richness by the second act, softening his character just enough to enrich Oroveso’s final moments with affecting pathos
Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Adalgisa is a beacon of staunchness and steadfastness in both character and delivery. She captures Adalgisa’s deep love for and radical solidarity with Norma–in her characterization, the young priestess radiates a sense of calm nobility. She remains consistent throughout the production, presenting us with a supple sound polished to a deep, golden shine. Her duets with Yoncheva are the musical highlight of the tragedia lirica. Finally allowed to look at each other as they navigate magnificent double-cadenzas, Norma and Adalgisa’s commitment is cemented as the singers draw new vigor from one another.
Michael Spyres, as the traitorous Pollione, has a vivid, immediate sound–robust for a tenor–and his entrance in Act I snaps the show into sharp vocal focus. His first aria displays a voice with buttery richness and thunderous power, but his early high notes feel a bit pinched compared to the fluid generosity of his middle voice. Like Yoncheva, Spyres’ vocal presence evens out as the night progresses, and by the final scene, I might have fallen for Pollione myself. Spyres imbues the character with an enriching sincerity and lets his voice do the dramatic work.
Maurizio Benini’s conducting veers between peppy and soporific; the overture is energetic and fresh, but occasionally, as in “Casta diva,” he lets his singers take things too slowly. Ensembles fare better, with Benini more clearly in control, and any missteps melt away in the terminal scene during which he leads his cast to a moving finale that reconciles the melodrama of the plot with the serious ethical questions raised. Here, especially, Bellini’s Norma comes alive as both a flawed woman and a noble priestess with a rich identity–a dichotomy that feels particularly authentic.
Norma continues at the Metropolitan Opera through March 25.