Woman on Fire

September 25th, 2017

To open the season, powerhouse soprano Sondra Radvanovsky takes on one of opera’s most fearsome roles, the title druid priestess of Bellini’s Norma, who wrestles with love and betrayal before making the ultimate sacrifice on a funeral pyre. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is Norma’s friend and rival, Adalgisa, in Sir David McVicar’s evocative new production. By William Berger 

There is nothing more quintessentially operatic than an empowered woman who channels mysterious but potent natural forces—and there is no opera that captures this idea better than Bellini’s Norma. This masterpiece of the bel canto (“beautiful singing”) era of early–19th century Italian opera has commanded respect—even when other operas of the same category fell out of favor with critics and academics—from its 1831 premiere down to the present day. It opens the Met’s 2017–18 season in a new production by director Sir David McVicar, whose past successes at the Met have included Verdi’s Il Trovatore (2009), Handel’s Giulio Cesare (2013), and Donizetti’s so-called Tudor Trilogy (Anna Bolena, 2011; Maria Stuarda, 2012; and Roberto Devereux, 2016). “Norma stands, I think, in universal estimation as a supreme expression of the bel canto movement,” he says. “It is, however, not simply about vocal display, but about musical declamation.” In other words, bel canto music only comes fully to life when the singers are able to imbue the intricate, virtuosic music with the essential emotion and drama.

On one level, Norma revolves around a classic love triangle: The title character, a druidic high priestess in ancient Gaul, has engaged in an illicit relationship with the enemy Roman proconsul Pollione, but he has abandoned her and seduced Norma’s younger colleague Adalgisa. With no way out of the personal and political stalemate, Norma makes the noble decision to sacrifice herself and save Adalgisa. Pollione, moved by her action, joins her in self-immolation.

The Met has assembled a dream cast for this production, led by Sondra Radvanovsky (who sang the daunting title role to great acclaim with the company in 2013 and accomplished the historic feat of starring in all three of Donizetti’s Tudor operas during the 2015–16 season), mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, and tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione. In December, the production returns with another world-class pairing of divas, as Angela Meade takes on the title role opposite Jamie Barton as Adalgisa. But the demands on the cast and crew of this opera are extraordinary even for artists of this caliber. There is such a wealth of both detail and grandeur written into the music and words for the characters and their situation that the drama is transformed into a gripping and penetrating social and psychological tragedy.

Set in the time of the Roman Empire’s subjugation of Celtic Gaul (modern France), Norma deals with the clash of cultures, with what we know as “civilization” (law, organized military, and so forth) pitted against a very different indigenous society. McVicar threw himself into a study of the ancient Celts—“joyously,” he says, citing his own Scottish Celtic identity as one factor in his enthusiasm. He found much modern archaeology exploring these mysterious ancients that was unavailable to Bellini andhis excellent librettist, Felice Romani. While Bellini and Romani relied on the Roman authors (most notably Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul) to recreate this world, McVicar has found that more recent studies of Celtic culture amplify their vision of a culture clash. He was impressed by the centrality of nature in the religion of the ancient Celts and the druids, the ruling priestly class who played such a visible role in their society and particularly in the opera. It struck him that their religion might be analogous to the religion of the Native Americans, “in the sense of their worship of nature and the importance of seeking a harmonious relationship with the natural world around them.”

This background informs the tragedy of the towering title figure herself. “Her relationship with the oppressor,” McVicar says, “deflects her from her true vocation and detaches her from her sense of belonging to the earth. And I think her immolation at the end is a kind of return to the earth. So, as well as being deeply tragic, it’s also incredibly noble and an incredibly liberating thing for Norma to do.”

The setting and its stage realization are also important contributors to the main goal of illuminating the powerful human drama in the opera. “Visually, we’ve tried to find a world which is true to history—they worshiped in forests, in groves, and we’ve tried to stay true to that,” McVicar says. “We’ve also tried to find an aesthetic which matches the beauty of Bellini’s score, in that the music has a kind of classical austerity to it, a simplicity, a purity that is very difficult to actually find a fitting visual counterpart to. But we’ve certainly tried.”

Norma’s drama is expressed most powerfully through its title character, which is one of opera’s touchstone roles. It is also extraordinarily difficult to sing, even by operatic standards. “Norma is some of the hardest music for any soprano,” says Radvanovsky, who has sung an impressively wide range of repertory. “She’s constantly onstage, always singing, but not just singing pretty all the time— also angry. And singing angry music is exhausting, because it’s just gut-wrenching. It’s …”—she pauses, searching for the exact word—“true.”

This truth to which Radvanovsky alludes extends beyond the music. The character makes emotional demands on the soprano, as well, something that has been noted by many of the great Normas of the past (Ponselle, Callas, Sutherland, Caballé, Sills, et al.). The famous Wagnerian soprano Lilli Lehmann, who surprised many by singing Norma at the opera’s Met premiere in 1890, famously said it was more stressful than it would be to sing Brünnhilde in all three of the Ring operas in which she appears—in one night!

Much of the challenge is emotional and personal: She experiences every human emotion at some point in the opera. “Norma is a woman who has a quick temper and changes emotions so quickly, radically,“ Radvanovsky says. “One second, she’s happy; next second, she’s really sad and wants to kill her children. She is a woman who is conflicted. She wants to be the druid priestess. She wants to be the leader of her people. But she also doesn’t want that. She just wants to be a normal woman, like all the women out there. She’s torn between her personal life and her business life.” To Radvanovsky, Norma’s dilemma resonates in today’s world. “Norma, in my opinion, is probably one of the most real operas. … Women really have to be strong in this modern-day business world. And, if you let that façade down, it shows weakness in a woman. I think, of all the roles that I sing, Norma is the one I relate to the most.”

Whatever the grandeur of Norma’s stature, her character is defined by her relations with those around her, and in this aspect she is buoyed by a spectacular ensemble cast. Calleja, who has had much success at the Met, including as the leads in Les Contes d’Hoffmann (2009) and Faust (2012), is her wayward lover, Pollione—a role that, like Norma, requires a rare vocal balance of lyricism, agility, and heroism. Norma’s younger colleague Adalgisa is none other than Met favorite and international superstar DiDonato, who has long been celebrated for her interpretations of Rossini’s and Donizetti’s bel canto heroines and who has also explored a diverse repertory (for example her upcoming star turn in the Met’s first-ever production of Massenet’s Cendrillon). Bass Matthew Rose is Norma’s formidable father Oroveso, and Carlo Rizzi, a master of the entire range of Italian opera, conducts. Radvanovsky praises both the ensemble and the production: “It is beauty onstage. It is true to the character of this druid priestess and all of her people. I think it’s going to be a great combination. And all of us together, I think, is going to be magical.”  

William Berger, a Met staff writer, radio producer, and commentator, is the author of Wagner without Fear and Verdi with a Vengeance.