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Sleeping With the Enemy: Bellini’s Norma is Also Ready for Her Close-Up

Ed Rampell: Hard on the heels of Moby Dick, LA Opera is presenting Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, quite possibly the wildest opera this reviewer has ever seen and heard.
Norma

Russell Thomas as Pollione and Jamie Barton as Adalgisa

NORMA Opera Review

Hard on the heels of Moby Dick, LA Opera is presenting Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, quite possibly the wildest opera this reviewer has ever seen and heard. This emotionally overwrought opera’s eponymous character is so psychologically conflicted and subject to mood changes that she makes Moby’s monomanaiacal, peg-legged Captain Ahab seem, in comparison, to be the very model of probity, restraint and sobriety.

In a nutshell, the plot, based on a play by Alexandre Soumet with a libretto by Felice Romani, is: Norma (soprano Angela Meade), the high priestess of the Druids in Gaul (an ancient name for what is now called France), which is occupied by the Romans, is caught between her obligations as a religious and national leader and her personal passions as the secret lover of Rome’s pro-consul, Pollione (tenor Russell Thomas), with whom she has clandestinely had two children. Norma may be the worst political chieftain ever depicted onstage: While her people want to rise up against the Roman occupiers she privately grapples with her divided loyalties towards her subjugated people and her covert sexual partner. All this is complicated when Pollione, a feckless fornicator, loses his ardor for Norma and gets the hots for a younger priestess, Adalgisa (mezzo-soprano, Jamie Barton of Rome - Georgia, that is).

Norma

Russell Thomas as Pollione and Jamie Barton as Adalgisa

Not only is Norma betraying her faith’s virginity vows, but also her nationalistic allegiance to her people too, as well as romantically competing with a fellow priestess for the favors of the head of her people’s oppressors. Norma is so outrageously unqualified to lead that she’s eligible to be a Republican candidate for president. In any case, onstage histrionics ensue.

Of course, Bellini’s Norma premiered way back in 1831 at Milan’s fabled La Scala, yet one can’t help but think that the LA Opera-tchiks who chose to present this work at this time may have had the current conflicts roiling much of 2015’s world in mind - either consciously or unconsciously. Norma’s subtext is full of references to a kind of “clash of civilizations” and holy war against foreign occupiers, as the Druids of Gaul burn to arise, o ye prisoners of starvation, ye wretched of the Earth, against the Roman Empire. And, as noted, the saga unfolds at what is currently called France, site of recent terrorist horrors.

During Bellini’s opera, auds get tantalizing glimpses of the mass hero, ready for revolution. But this is a bourgeois drama, where the personal trumps the political, the individual eclipses the collective. Signore Bellini is far more concerned with Norma’s “all-important” inner psychology and sexuality than in the “trivial” matters of national liberation and an uprising against the oppressors. In bourgeois productions the sex lives of lead characters is far more interesting and important than the well-being and fate of millions of suffering humans. Norma’s lyrics, for instance, include the words “hymns to hymens” (hey, don’t blame me folks, blame the librettist and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s supertitles - I just report this stuff, I don’t make it up). Who Pollione is screwing takes precedence over the screwing of an entire nation. First things first, opera fans!

(Although I’d argue there’s really nothing more dramatic than human beings fighting for their rights and freedom, which is far more compelling and gripping than who protagonists do or don’t have sex with. Silly moi!)

Norma

Angela Meade

Unfortunately, Bellini died at an even younger age than Mozart did and Norma, with its sexual pyrotechnical tensions, is very much the creation of a young person. Bellini had just turned 29 when what is widely considered to be his finest work and what Basil De Pinto calls “the supreme achievement of the bel canto school” of opera debuted. (Bel canto translates as “beautiful singing.” In a 2008 New York Times article Anthony Tommasini described bel canto as being “nothing more ravishing than a beautiful voice singing a beautiful melodic line beautifully, especially a melodic line driven by a sensitive musical setting of a poetic and singable text.”)

Norma’s music is certainly lyrical and exquisitely rendered. After warbling her entrance aria “Casta diva”, Angela Meade as the title character received a rare LA Op first act ovation from a “Brava!”-exclaiming, applauding audience; a few fans even rose from their seats in tribute to the sonorous soprano. The second act duet called “Mira, o Norma”, between Meade as Norma and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Adalgisa, was met with similar enthusiastic outpourings from the aud, as the two characters who’d competed for Pollione’s affection and attention unite and proclaim eternal fealty, fidelity and friendship to and for one another. Their poetically expressed sentiments of sisterly solidarity reminded me of that song from Gypsy, “Together Wherever We Go.” In any case, listening to their rapturous exclamations of love for one another, I couldn’t help think that if Norma and Adalgisa became lovers they’d solve their Loco Pollione problem.

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The kudos exuberantly resumed after the curtain dropped, as opera-lovers hailed the Anne Bogart-directed cast and music performed by the James Conlon-conducted orchestra. Alas, although Act I’s sloping set designed by Neil Patel was adequate the second act’s moon had all the panache of the high school production of a musical.

Another interesting aspect of this version of Norma is its non-traditional casting. Pollione is portrayed by Russell Thomas and Norma’s father, Oroveso, by bass Morris Robinson. Both men acquit themselves with honor and are African Americans. This raises certain touchy questions at a time when the issue of diversity in the entertainment world is an increasingly important subject, while racism in the USA and beyond likewise remains headline news.

What would Bellini have thought of his Roman pro-consul and Druid high priest being played by Blacks? Would this have been historically accurate? Does this even matter? Should a tenor or bass be judged by his voice, not the color of his skin? Should LA Opera be lauded for opening up the canon of roles to performers of color, who were long excluded from the hallowed halls of opera, where even the North African title character in the operatic versions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello was played for decades by Caucasian crooners? (Italian tenor Francesco Tamagno sang the part when Otello premiered in 1887 at La Scala.)

The issue of whether or not Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko should appear in dark makeup or “blackface” during an October 2015 production of Otello at Manhattan’s The Met, which included a live movie-theater telecast from Lincoln Center, proved controversial. The venerable Metropolitan Opera, which first staged Otello in 1891, issued a statement about its recent production, asserting: “the Met is committed to color-blind casting.” It’s interesting to note that Paul Robeson - arguably a far better singer than an actor - performed this part onstage, including in the 1940s on the Great White Way, in productions of Shakespeare’s Othello - but I believe the great bass never sang the role of the Moor in a production of Verdi’s opera. Robeson may have had the whole wide world in his hands - but not this opera role.

Norma

Morris Robinson as Oroveso

One may ask: If someone of African ancestry can portray a Roman or Druid why can’t a performer of Baltic heritage play a Moor? These are really complex issues which this reviewer doesn’t pretend to know the answers to. But perhaps part of the explanation from a racial point of view is that there’s a big difference between when members of historically excluded, oppressed minorities make inroads and shatter glass (and class!) ceilings and when members of the dominant majority culture perpetuate their monopolistic, privileged grasp over the arts. This has been true on other societal spheres, from sports to academia to the armed forces and so on. Perhaps, to paraphrase (again) Dr. King, performers should be judged by the contents of their talent, not the color of their skin.

Now, if bringing all this up isn’t too controversial, there’s another kind of non-conventional casting this intrepid reviewer will venture forth on. In today’s celebrity-obsessed world where models, actresses, etc., are generally expected to portray a slim version of female beauty, the two singers playing Norma and Adalgisa are both oversized women. This may often be the case in opera, but it would be rare to never to see these body types adorn the pages of, say, Cosmo or Vogue, or on the silver screen as romantic leads. Consider that Melissa McCarthy is generally cast as a figure of fun and when her characters are sexual it’s considered to be an occasion of high hilarity.

So, there’s a lot to think about in LA Opera’s Norma - love, sex, revolution, non-traditional casting and more - but Bellini’s masterwork is literally music to the ear. Like Gloria Swanson’s crazed Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s 1950 movie classic Sunset Boulevard, Bellini’s Norma is also ready for her close-up.

Norma is being performed Sundays Nov. 29 and Dec. 13 at 2:00 p.m. and Dec. 2, 5 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell