The MET Opera House/ Wednesday March 8th, 2023.
Welcome back friends!
Welcome this week, to the fabulous world of opera, so often filled with great drama, and to one of the most beautiful, tragic, riveting, 19th century, Italian “Bel canto” (or “beautiful singing”) operas ever written.
What is “Bel canto”?
“Bel canto” is a singing technique found in opera works, which originated in Italy around the 17th century, and was and is still, particularly demanding in terms of control of vocal tone intensity, of vocal agility, and required/requires perfectly clear enunciation.
And interestingly, this “Bel canto” technique then, eventually nearly disappeared, by the turn of the 20th century, as trends in opera, by then, encouraged heavier and more dramatic singing.
So welcome to quintessential 19th century “Bel canto” opera with 1831 “Norma”, by illustrious Italian composer, especially famed and respected for his elegant, clear, pure vocal melodies, the greatly talented, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835).
And “Norma” is indeed a great favorite of mine, as of audiences around the world, first and foremost, because of its bewildering romantic, and ravishing “Bel canto” singing, as well as for its long lined music, including show stopping arias, duets, trios and incredibly moving choruses as well.
Wow! and yay!
And Bellini’s “Norma”, despite a fiasco start, is considered as one of the most brilliant and beautiful “Bel canto” operas of its time, among 3 other Italian “Bel canto” composers. (The other two being, Rossini (1792-1868), with his 1817 “La Cenerentola” for example, and especially, Donizetti (1797-1848), with his 1835 “Lucia di Lammermoor” for example as well).
And to me, two other reasons explain the staying power of “Norma”, in addition to Bellini’s beautiful music:
First and foremost, “Norma”‘s timelessness stems in particular, from the particularly deep, philosophical, and romantic libretto penned by the best Italian poet of the times, and scholar of literature and mythology, the incredibly sensitive and expressive Felice Romani (1788-1865), who collaborated many times with Bellini.
Wow! and yay!
Bellini had an instinct for people, and knew that Romani’s inspired words, would always fit perfectly his music.
Words were then carefully chosen to accompany the music, without ever being shallow or boring.
And it is unsurprising, as Felice Romani (1788-1865), wrote for many other composers as well (including Donizetti), and in this instance, for “Norma”, Romani adapted with slightly less violence, the illustrious “Norma, ou L’infanticide” 1831 play, by French poet, Alexandre Soumet (1788-1845). Also, Romani had written a libretto with a similar subject called “La Sacerdotessa d’Irminsul” (“The Priestess of Irminsul”) for an 1817 opera by Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867). Romani simply reused as well, the background of his earlier libretto for “Norma”.
And last and final reason to me, explaining “Norma”‘s success, involves the opera’s setting in Gaul, 50 B.C. E., a time of Druidism mythology. A world and time, still striking a chord with many in Europe, and clearly still relevant and admired in the 19th century, and depicted in many works in opera, and literature, including in French novelist Chateaubriand’s 1809 “Les martyrs” work, which involves a Druid Priestess falling for a Roman soldier.
So what is Norma about?
This 2 act tragedy is easy to summarize:
In Act 1, we discover “Norma” a Druid High-Priestess, daughter of Oroveso, chief of the village, who has broken her vows by getting involved with the Roman “enemy”, Pollione, with whom we learn she has two children.
Pollione has fallen out of love with Norma, and now, loves the novice priestess Adalgisa.
The village wants to uprise against the Romans, but Norma thinks the moment has not yet come, and when it does, Norma will lead herself the revolt, but first, Norma prays to the moon goddess, for peace.
Let’s now listen to a dress rehearsal clip of the most beautiful aria of the opera, and one of the most famous of the opera canon:
Just awesome, and so well, (even better) performed on Wednesday evening.
We then discover Adalgisa, who is torn between her passion for Pollione, and her awe and loyalty towards Norma.
She meets Norma to tell her about her situation, and to ask for guidance, and after initial fury from Norma, as Norma learns that Adalgisa is in love with “her” Pollione, Norma releases Adalgisa from her vows (as she herself broke her vows as well, a few years earlier and still does), and the two women start slowly to rekindle their friendship, as Adalgisa would rather die, than steal away Pollione from Norma.
In Act 2, Norma cannot bring herself (fortunately) to murder her children, and begs Adalgisa to marry Pollione, and take the children to Rome. Adalgisa refuses. Adalgisa agrees only to go to Pollione to persuade him to return to Norma. Norma and Adalgisa reaffirm their friendship.
Let’s listen to another dress rehearsal clip, and admire beautiful duet between the 2 women, who are slowly becoming friends again.
We then learn that a new commander will replace Pollione.
Norma is then stunned to hear that Pollione won’t return to her, and that he has profaned the druids sanctuary. Norma urges her people to attack the conquerors. A sacrificial victim is needed. Norma then volunteers to sacrifice herself, as a priestess who also offended the Druid rites, and only then, does Pollione have a change of heart. Pollione joins her on the pyre, and leaves their children to Norma’s father Oroveso, to watch over them.
What to say about the production itself?
That David Mc Vicar’s’s beautiful and austere production, worked, especially the lighting, without yet, truly impressing me. I loved the moonlight on the forest leaves in Act 1, and in Act 2, the great colors given by the lighting design, for the final pyre building. Yet, I wished for a tad more “magic”, even though it was beautiful.
What to say of the conductor and performers?
That all of them, including the chorus, were, as was the orchestra, wonderfully conducted, with great beauty and sensitivity, under Maurizio Benini’s masterful baton.
And two singers, particularly stood out for me:
First, the Bulgarian and highly expressive soprano, Sonya Yoncheva, was truly exceptional as Norma: such nuance: what great passion, and yet softness as well in her singing. Extremely convincing in his portrayal of this complex powerful, yet betrayed high priestess.
Second, in the moving role of the other young novice priestess, the warm sounding, Adalgisa, Russian mezzo-soprano, Ekaterina Gubanova was wonderful, and what beautiful color in her voice!
American tenor Michael Spyres, to me, was a bit disappointing as Pollione, lacking the necessary charisma to the role, in my opinion, and I was not a huge fan of the upper register of his voice, but yet he sang beautifully with everyone.
So, to sum up my feelings, about Bellini’s tragic, and yet so incredibly poetic “Norma “, filled with incredible political and personal drama, admired last Wednesday, at the MET Opera, in great company: what a heartbreaking tale, set to awesomely stunning long musical lines, and incredibly well performed especially by the 2 main women characters: how moving is Yoncheva, as “Norma” the complex, and in the end, dutiful priestess, filled so many conflicting emotions, and what an endearing “Adalgisa”, Gubanova embodies. And finally, what a poetic, yet a tad austere, Mc Vicar production, enhancing beautifully though, the Druid natural environment, and what a romantic backdrop to listen to this gorgeous music.
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊