What Would Make Norma “Relevant”?

As far as I’m concerned, this story, and the emotions it can stir, are forever relevant, and in this version all the more so for the work’s rich cultural heritage. In any opera, though, the story’s effect depends above all on that of the music, and the music’s on that of its performance. In this opera, even more than in most, success in performance requires singing of superior aesthetic quality, dramatic commitment, and presence. It also badly needs  assured and energetic orchestral and choral leadership. We’re accustomed to acknowledging the first of these (“bel canto,” after all), but as this performance showed, the second can have almost as determinative an impact. Let me get that out of the way first.

Norma comprises long passages of certifiably beautiful music for its female leads—tightly woven legato solos, exchanges, and duets whose ascents and descents are predominantly gradual. They are based on already-conventional forms that start slowly and then speed up, either in typically vigorous cabaletta fashion or in a slower build, but it is a particular mark of Bellini’s achievement in this opera that he fashions these forms into through-written arcs of dramatic development. They call for taut, firmly guided accompaniment in the slower sections, sharp impetus in the quicker ones, and an unmistakeable sense of destination throughout. The work also takes in writing of virile impetus for Pollione; passages of dramatic declamation; a jaunty banda march; several large choral statements, including a brief but famous war song; and a twice-built grand finale that draws the emotional and moral predicaments into the highest tension, and then to redemptive release. Finally, it has a brilliant sinfonia and several scene-opening instrumental interludes of some length, intended to accompany an entrance or pantomimic action.

It is Bellini’s melodic genius, coupled with its adaptation to the operatic vocal usages of his time, that has kept Norma fitfully alive for 186 years. To our post-modern-symphony-orchestra, post-Verdian/Wagnerian/Puccinian/Straussian ears, though, there is not a lot in the opera that will sound unpredictable or unconventional, and some (like the Druid March or the merry little tune,”Dell’aura tua profetica,” to which Oroveso and the chorus promise destruction to the Romans) that can sound amusingly quaint or even trite. So it is crucial, even in the presence of fine singing, that urgent sounds, sounds that insist on the music’s dramatic significance, emerge from the alliance of pit and podium. The Met’s maestro, Carlo Rizzi, did for this score what he has done for all I’ve heard  him conduct—turned it down from a boil to a simmer, and thence to Superlow. There was little sonic presence, except at the biggest moments. The slow accompaniments died, the quicker ones chattered harmlessly along. There was no suspense, no tension, no sense of dramatic construction, not a trace of grandeur.

One example that told the tale from the outset: after the maestoso peroration that opens the overture and the brief alternations of calm and outburst that follow, the violins introduce the rapid descending staccato theme, built from pp to ff over 15 bars, that we will think of as the overture’s hallmark tune, just as we do in a number of Rossini and Mozart overtures. Later in the overture’s development, the theme returns, led into by five bars of the same movement, but now suspended on single pitches, alternating bar by bar between F# and A, over a tremolando. It’s pregnant with something, but we don’t find out what until very late in the drama, at the moment when Norma dismisses the assembly “to interrogate” Pollione, and begins the confrontation (“In mia man alfin tu sei“) that will lead to her fateful final choice. As the stage empties except for Norma and Pollione, it’s that little tremolando figure that holds the moment: what will Norma do? And while I am not privy to the sequence of Bellini’s inventions, it seems pretty clear that it was this little tag, which serves a practical function as  part of the Druids’ traveling music but also serves as high-suspense set-up for the following scene, that gave birth to the overture’s theme, which is thus for us premonitory of that crucial late moment. Rizzi’s treatment of this theme held no tension, no hint of something foretold; it pranced lightly by like a dance tune heard from the next room, and that was all too typical. The singers had a lot to transcend.