It would seem an unlikely marriage: Zurich in the year 2015 and the sacred grove of the Druids during the Roman occupation of Gaul, some 50 B.C. But Robert Wilson's production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma aligns the two in sovereign style. While this is not a new production, the current cast varies from that of the opera’s première (2011), bringing new impulse to what is widely considered the most demanding of the bel canto repertoire.

The very first image distinguishes itself as a crossover between the light installations of James Turrell and the poised, slow-moving figures of a Jugendstil frieze. During the overture − where the woodwinds give way to the dramatic fanfare of a march − the projection of a huge white circle intersected by a diagonal line appears at the back of entirely black stage. This could be the rising moon of a new political order: Gaul for the Gauls again, over the Romans. But the circle/line also sets the stage for the geometries to come: the love triangle that dooms the characters, the solid “cubes” that will hang above the heads of the female protagonists to affirm their strong moral persuasions. 

Then a sole figure in a flowing bright purple fitting royals slowly crosses the stage. With her arms poised and away from her body, she would seem locked in the graceful processions of a Gustav Klimt frieze. This is the young Norma, the revered Druid high priestess (Maria Agresta) who, against all her vows of chastity, has borne two children to an unlikely lover: the Roman Pro-consul Pollione (Mario Berti). Norma's father Oroveso (Wenwei Zhang) has implored the gods to incite his people to War against that foreign rule, making her the greater traitor.

Zhang’s role in Act I is modest; but he’s brilliant later in the opera, where his voice is as sound as his huge gold yoke is silly. A man of commanding physical presence, Zhang electrifies the stage with his strong, resonant bass, while his “warriors” bear the upright “sticks” of pending aggression.

An unlikely lover. A pending war. And as can be expected, a hitch in the script. Norma’s beloved Pollione avows that he no longer loves Norma, and that his heart beats instead for the virgin Adalgisa (Roxana Constantinescu). He begs her to join him in Rome, promising happiness and security. Against all odds, though, the innocent Adalgisa’s sense of honour and loyalty take precedence over matters of the heart. She refuses to flee with the man who has betrayed Norma, her devoted friend.

Norma’s famous aria “Casta diva”, a prayer to the “chaste goddess” in Act I, was sung beautifully, if more privately and contained than some. Holding contrived poses for so long must add muscle to already stringent vocal demands, as tough for a soprano here as any in opera. But she mastered her hymn to the moon − an aria of commendable simplicity whose long elegant phrases typify bel canto – in a rendition that felt almost like holiness itself.

Filled with despair in Act II, Norma attempts to save her errant lover from death for breaking into the temple, offering herself as a sacrifice in his stead. While Felice Romani’s libretto has Pollione joining her on the pyre, Wilson’s production has Norma going to her death alone, a stark silhouette at the back of the stage who succumbs to a brilliant orange and all-consuming light.

The production’s truly spectacular lighting design (by AJ Weissbard, Hans-Rudolf Kunz) deserves special mention. Given that the moral fibre of the characters is at stake, the light is usually focused on the singers’ faces and upper bodies. Throughout the opera, we see passport portrait of the principals as they hover above their sustained poses, a device that underscores a key message here: the disfigurement of loyalty always begins in the brain.

That said, the pervasive posture on stage, the consistently sustained and stiff “body language” may condense action so we can focus on the vocals themselves, but it’s tough for an audience to marry the likes of a line such as: "Ah! Trust my sweet words, and press me, as your husband, to your breast!" with a singer planted firmly centre stage who is projecting intimacies out to an audience with a deadpan face. 

The set design (Wilson), though, is terrific. As Norma confronts the reality of Pollione’s betrayal, a huge grey monolith opens up to reveal four tall case pieces with faceted mirror innards, for example, and their prism effect magnifies the dire character of her situation. Yet as ostensibly simple as some of the sets are − often just a panel lowered, or a projection of a diffuse geometric form − there were some real hiccups in set changes. The grinding noise of platforms being moved was often far too audible for comfort, and as always, served as a viable ticket away from the Druids and back to reality. Fortunately, the Philharmonia Zürich’s fine musical achievement was more than adequate compensation in sound. Under Fabio Luisi’s tight command, the orchestra rendered Bellini’s elegant vocal accompaniments sublimely.