WNO’s “Norma”: of men, women and sopranos


Dolora Zajick as Adalgisa and Angela Meade in the Washington National Opera’s “Norma”: dueling sopranos raising the bar for each other. (Scott Suchman for WNO)

“Norma” seems to give rise to issues of matriarchy and patriarchy, Gaulish earth mother vs. armored Roman soldier, but I was amused to note that two recent productions took opposing takes on the question. Evidently David Alden’s production for Opera North sees Norma as being caught between a patriarchal Druid society and the Roman patriarchy. Anne Bogart, by contrast, casts the Gauls as the female force, the Romans as the male one.

It only struck me when we were copy-editing the review that I had perhaps missed an on-stage attempt at synthesis of these two forces in Bogart’s production; an editor queried my description of the backdrop to Neil Patel’s set as both a “yonic shape” and “a flying menhir,” observing that menhirs were usually seen as phallic. Oh my goodness, I thought, that’s true, and I bet this was supposed to represent the fusion of the phallic and the yonic. To my thinking, that makes it even worse. I so much want Anne Bogart to do well and be hired to do other experiments with other theaters, and I’d rather see her fall on her face than see someone like Bart Sher slick the life right out of “Elisir d’Amore,” but I thought this “Norma” production was a turkey.

Above: Excerpts of “Norma” at the Washington National Opera. The recording sure makes the tenor Rafael Davila sound better.

I’ve long opined that if you’re staging “Norma,” like many 19th-century Italian operas with supposedly historical antecedents, it doesn’t pay to look too closely into Druid culture. (Similarly, I believe you’d do better in Verdi’s “Macbeth” thinking in terms of 19th-century Italy than in 11th-century Scotland, a place and time as unfamiliar to Verdi and his librettists as to most audience members today.) However, I wasn’t entirely correct about “Norma”; as many people reading this may already know, Felice Romani, Bellini’s librettist, in fact co-authored a six-volume dictionary of mythology and antiquities, and a number of the details in Norma were grounded in research about Druid practices. Romani also wrote the libretto for an earlier opera by Giovanni Pacini called “The Priestess of Irminsul,” and Pacini was so annoyed at Bellini’s venturing into the same territory that he organized a claque to boo the premiere.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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