What Would Make Norma “Relevant”?

Although the current Metropolitan Opera production of Bellini’s Norma is a new one and had been selected as the season’s opener, the performance I saw (on October 3) was unremarkable, and I had no plans to write about it until oddly parallel remarks in a couple of local reviews, bouncing back and forth like echoes off our urban canyon walls, stirred thoughts about whether the work is any longer of use, and if so on what terms. The reviews were in two of the journals I see with greatest regularity, the New York Times and the New Yorker. The latter publication, once an indispensable source for devotees of classical music, has for all practical purposes withdrawn from critical coverage of anything involving any of its forms—the orchestral, chamber, and recital varieties; opera—except for the widely spaced and idiosyncratic commentaries of its nominal music critic, Alex Ross. Ballet has suffered similar diminution. But this occasion, paired with the New York Philharmonic’s first full first concert under its new music director, Jaap van Sweden, drew Ross back to the big old halls and the mainstream beat.

Neither Ross nor the Times‘ reviewer, Anthony Tommasini, actually use the word “relevant” this time around. But relevancy, in a very particular meaning, is what they (and many others) are looking for in this (and many other) cases. And they are instructing us to look for it, too. According to my trusty Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary, “relevant” means “relating to the matter in hand,” and by way of sampling usage Skeats cites a letter of Charles 1’s: “to make our probations and arguments relevant.” But then the natural question is, what is the “matter in hand”? And, following—whose hand? Because there’s no such thing as universal relevancy. People decide for themselves what’s relevant to them. In this instance, Ross avoids “relevant,” and substitutes “pertinent.” All right, “pertinent.” Skeats: “relating or belonging to.” To what? To whom?

In his lead paragraph, Tommasini finds Norma “rich in themes that resonate in today’s political and social climate.”  (My italics.) Later, he chides the production’s director, David McVicar, for “not having a more resonant concept to begin with,” and offers as comparison the Salzburg production of a few years back, updated to the France of WW11 and starring Cecilia Bartoli. Ross, after complaining that choosing Norma to open the Met’s season was implicitly “reactionary” and that the company persists in putting on “canonical pieces by white males” (alternate suggestions, please?) while “the nation contends with its racist and misogynist demons,” deplores the production’s “mildly sexed-up traditionalism” and its “mist of Gothic-Romantic cliché.” He, too (and this is where the parallels, otherwise fairly general and expectable, become specific), recalls the Salzburg/Bartoli Occupation scenario, as well as another set in an Amish community. The Salzburg Norma (staged in the Haus für Mozart  in 2013, during the Whitsun Festival), was very much a reformist one, musicologically speaking. That, and Bartoli’s performance, was what was widely celebrated about it, and one might think that those elements are what music critics would find relevant or pertinent. But it is the production itself, with the Druids transformed into Resistance fighters, that both use to chastise McVicar’s sociopolitical backwardness. I’ll give consideration to that below. First, some attention to the Met’s effort, and to the nature of the piece itself.