On Saturday night at the Washington National Opera, we got some strong singing and some fairly turgid drama. Call this new production of Bellini’s “Norma” a glass-half-full performance.
“Norma” is a pretty static piece to begin with. Though the music and words are all about love and anguish and fury, the actual opera involves a lot of standing around. For this production, WNO hired Anne Bogart, who comes from outside the world of opera, as director. This can result in fresh insights, as it did in her “Carmen” at Glimmerglass a couple of years ago. In this “Norma,” unfortunately, she opted to embrace the opera’s symbolic side, resulting in earnestness to the point of parody — since “Norma,” with its Druid priestesses and Roman soldiers, is a pretty easy target of parody to begin with.
So we had a matriarchy of priestesses represented by a sextet of white-robed vestal-virgin acolytes whose stylized entrances led one audience member to quip, “Walk like an Egyptian!” We had macho Roman soldiers running clunkily out on stage like something from a Monty Python sketch. The raked stage of Neil Patel’s set was physically hard to navigate, and Bogart had her chorus and extras moving around a lot to no discernible purpose, often running awkwardly up or down the incline. A big, circular cutout in the floor alternately delineated the altar and Norma’s dwelling; it also corresponded to a circular moon that rose slowly in the sky through the second act, and these round forms were offset by large sticks or beams leaning against one side of the stage — a stylized, masculine forest. On the backdrop, a large, indeterminate shape like a flying menhir was surrounded by a series of rough concentric circles, looking vaguely yonic. It all felt a little clunky.
And the heavy-handed symbolism tended to flatten the drama. Strip away the druids from “Norma” and you have the age-old situation of a woman whose guy, after two kids and untold sacrifices, throws her over for her younger colleague. However static the opera as a whole, the moment when the younger woman, Adalgisa (Dolora Zajick), having confessed everything to Norma (Angela Meade), innocently reveals the identity of her lover, Pollione (Rafael Davila), usually gets a rise out of the audience.
Not on Saturday. Despite a pretty great build-up of no-holds-barred singing in the Norma-Adalgisa duet, the conductor (the young, somewhat callow Daniele Rustioni, who in his WNO debut seemed to prize effect over substance) charged forward without giving room to breathe (a more experienced conductor could have subtly cued applause). And since Bogart had Adalgisa reveal Pollione’s identity by showing Norma a miniature likeness, the impact of Pollione’s actual entrance was almost nil: suddenly we found ourselves confronted by the trio without having quite followed what had happened. A small moment, you say, but there are so few moments of genuine on-stage drama that it’s significant when the production fails to deliver on the key one.