A society under siege from an alien invasion. Refugees cowering in a shelter that looks and feels more like a prison. A deeply conflicted political and religious leader. How much more relevant could a 184-year old opera get?

The production of Norma that opened the National Theaterʼs new season in Prague was not torn from the headlines, at least not overtly. The look is abstract and the themes are timeless. But there is no missing the contemporary resonance in a smart treatment developed, fittingly, by an international team: Japanese director Tomo Sugao, making his debut at the State Opera; Slovak set designer Boris Kudlička, who created a mesmerizing mise-en-scène for Mariusz Trelińskiʼs production of Salome at the State Opera last season; German lighting designer Wolfgang Göbbel; and Italian conductor Enrico Dovico.

Their version of Norma begins and ends with a helpless child onstage, a link to the source material, Alexandre Soumetʼs 1831 play Norma, ou lʼinfanticide. A reworking of Euripidesʼ Medea, it transposed the setting to first-century BC Gaul, where the Druids were rising up against their Roman occupiers. Librettist Felice Romani kept Soumetʼs setting but changed the focus of the story to the tormented title character, whose secret tryst with Pollione, a Roman consul, has broken her vows as a priestess, betrayed her people and resulted in two children whom she alternately loves and wants to kill. When a junior priestess, Adalgisa, reveals to Norma that she has also fallen in love with Pollione (and he with her), the stage is set for a terrible tragedy. 

Sugao and his team follow the story faithfully but set the action in an imposing stone shelter with high walls that melt, shift and change colors throughout the performance, framing the narrative in a claustrophobic, ever-tightening maze. The effect is jarring at first, darkly incongruous with Belliniʼs bright, vibrant score, and a direct contradiction to the frequent references to “these sacred woods.” But soon those references and the music take on a cruel irony, highlighting what the Druids have lost and giving painful life to their longing for a restored homeland. 

Sugao employs a classic stage vocabulary – his characters spend a lot of time hugging walls and on their knees. At times he is almost too literal, especially in the short scenes created to fill musical interludes, starting with the overture. When Norma thinks she has a chance of winning back Pollioneʼs love, he suddenly appears for a brief wedding ceremony, complete with his aide taking a flash photograph. The fantasy vanishes quickly, and in a piece done primarily as a psychological drama, itʼs certainly not out of place. But for the most part, the fillers lack the artfulness and subtlety that characterize almost every other aspect of the production.

Kudličkaʼs work is breathtaking, especially in the religious ritual in the first act, when the back wall of the shelter dissolves and is replaced by a vine-covered gateway to the forest. In the confrontation of Norma, Pollione and Adalgisa that closes the first act, pulsing lights and mercurial walls perfectly mirror the distraught mental and emotional stages of the characters. Göbbelʼs lighting throughout the rest of the evening, often harsh and always coming in at a slant, seems to pin the characters in what feels more and more like a Greek tragedy, hurling inevitably toward their doom.

The singing by National Theater soloists was uniformly strong in the première. Aleš Briscein gave a workmanlike portrayal of Pollione, and Jana Horáková Levicová was a tender, vulnerable Adalgisa. Marie Fajtová showed she has the voice to carry the lead role, among the most demanding in the operatic repertoire. She stopped the show several times with ripely emotional and at times beautifully crystalline singing. Fajtová sounded a bit stretched by the end – but then, who wouldnʼt after nearly three hours of nonstop coloratura runs?

Dovico drew a colorful, spirited performance from the State Opera Orchestra, which sounded more Italian than Czech. The lilt in the music was particularly impressive, coming from an ensemble that typically carries a heavier repertoire. And the State Opera Chorus was, as always, outstanding. The prayer that closes the opening scene was delivered with a power and clarity that set the tone for the entire evening, drawing well-deserved applause.

The National Theater has been making an effort to break out of its longstanding Czech mold, and with this production continues to raise its sights and the bar for future work. International cooperation may be a forlorn hope in the political and economic spheres these days. But on the stages of Prague, itʼs doing very well.