"Norma" is undoubtedly Vincenzo Bellini´s masterpiece and a risky choice to start any operatic season, for its vocal and dramatic demands are of the highest order. It stands or falls by the choice of female singers; not only Norma, the Druid High Priestess, daughter of the Archdruid Oroveso, but also Adalgisa, the virgin of the Temple who innocently admits that the Roman proconsul Pollione loves her, provoking disaster because he is Norma´s lover and they have two children, unbeknown by the whole Gaul community.
Before I go any further, let me say that the two artists who sang these roles in the second cast (the one I could see) justified being chosen and were the main reason to admit this revival, which had some flaws. But first, some background for those that aren´t familiar with this opera, an essential bel canto landmark. It is the eighth of his eleven operas and by far the most important of this short-lived composer (1801-35). His librettist, as in other six operas, was the renowned Felice Romani, based on Louis Alexandre Soumet´s tragedy; both this and the opera were premièred in the same year, 1831, though Soumet in Paris (April) and Bellini at Milan´s La Scala (December 26).
Indeed, as said in Grove´s Dictionary, Bellini´s genius was all for lyrical expression: clarity, elegance and beauty of form. But it´s only in "Norma" that the beautiful melodies and the recitatives have such strong dramatic force. And naturally it became the top role in the career of Maria Callas.
Time and place: Sacred forest of the druids during Roman occupation of Gaul, first century B.C. Druid in Celtic means "Knowing the Oak Tree". Julius Caesar tells us that the Druids took charge of private and public sacrifices, judged quarrels and decreed penalties. Norma does the rite of the mistletoe on the Sacred Stone in front of the Oak Tree. The druids were later suppressed by Tiberius (reigned AD 14-37). In the opera they want war against the Romans but Norma in Act One invokes the Moon ("Casta Diva") and says they must wait; however, in Act 3 she calls for war because of her rage against Pollione. Contradictory, Medea-like she wants to murder her children because they are Pollione´s blood but seconds later she embraces them. In fact, we seem to be witnessing a Greek tragedy.
Mariana Carnovali faced the challenge of Norma with aplomb and musicality; the voice has a good timbre, she sang with line and fine highs. However, she lacks the dramatic impact for those moments of terrible truth such as the revelation of Pollione´s love for Adalgisa. Mezzo Nidia Palacios has had a distinguished European career in many roles and theatres; her return to our city is welcome, for she has firm vocal means and style; the duets with Norma were enjoyable and exact. Pollione is an ungrateful character and a difficult one; Nazareth Aufe barely coped with it. The experienced bass Mario De Salvo did an adequate Oroveso. With ringing voice tenor Ramiro Pérez gave relevance to Flavio, Pollione´s friend, and Romina Jofre was a correct Clotilde, Norma´s confidante.
Hernán Sánchez Arteaga was both the conductor of the orchestra and the director of the choir; excepting a rather rough Overture, he proved an attentive supporter of the solo singers and he got excellent response in the choral fragments, especially those for male voices.
The problem, once again, was the production. Florencia Sanguinetti avoided the prevailing sin of transporting everything to the Twenty First Century, but there are other ways to be wrong. The unit set by Marcelo Salvioli was aggressive, uncomfortable and unsuited: cutting rocks in a cliff and steps all over the stage certainly aren´t a Sacred Forest. Incongruously projections showed a glacier, a sea... and yes, suitably, a wood. Uncalled-for choreography for unexistent balletic music, added characters (Agénor, Clodomir) and slaves. The costumes by Cecilia Carini were better, and Rubén Conde handled the lighting well. But things like a hospital bed for the kids in a completely unbelievable "room" (Norma´s dwelling) dominated by rocks are totally contrary to this opera´s needs.
For Buenos Aires Herald