Norma is no stranger to the Zurich stage. As few as eight months ago, another production galvanized Bellini’s reputation with a striking Robert Wilson revival. But this current Norma by producers Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, which premiered in Salzburg in 2013 with this same cast, shifts the composer’s original setting. The Druids, once threatened by their Roman invaders, are moved into the 20th century, where they emerge as French Resistance fighters pitted against the Germans. The transposition to WWII is not without its suspension of disbelief. The first aria, for example, “Go to the hills, ye Druids”, was sung inside an entirely functional French schoolroom, and points to one great anomaly of the modernized production: that parts of the libretto may be threatened with making no sense.

Fortunately, the plot is fairly straightforward. High Priestess Norma has been long enough with the enemy consul Pollione (the truly superb John Osborn) to bear him two children. When her dear friend Adalgisa (Rebeca Olvera) confesses that she is in love, Norma is supportive of her friend’s choice for a man over her commitment to their cult. It escapes her that the lines of seduction Adalgisa relays are surprisingly similar to those she herself once heard from Pollione. Yet at the end of Act I, she realizes that her friend’s lover and the father of her own children are one and the same, and the effect on her is cataclysmic.

A traitor to the cult herself, Norma is then confronted with an ominous decision: to kill her own children to punish Pollione for his betrayal, or reveal her own treason − the long-year liaison with him − and perish herself, thereby making way for his future with Adalgisa. In an act of close to superhuman compassion, Norma steps aside and calls herself the traitor publicly rather than implicate her friend. Even more tragically, Pollione realizes the depth and commitment of her love for him far too late, rescinding just before the time they are both set to burn alive for treason.

Singing the soprano lead as Norma, considered one of the most difficult in the whole opera repertory, Cecilia Bartoli ventured into risky territory few modern mezzos have attempted before her, once again proving herself an artist of conviction. The agony of decision-making, the tremendous loss of her dearest love, the impassioned pleas for the protection of her two children − especially to her father Oroveso (the seasoned Péter Kálmán) − made for drama without parallel. Bartoli sang the famous “Casta diva” with superb nuance, giving each word of her hymn to the moon its own heft and emotive bearing, bringing to it her uniquely delicate ornamentation that felt like something made in heaven itself. Yet other of her melodies lost their pulp or were masked by strained higher notes, and one a cappella duet with Adalgisa was painfully off-key; neither singer seemed to hear the other, and they sang at cross purposes, making an acute moment of listener’s cringe.

Nevertheless, Bartoli’s lioness to her Pollione’s ultimate lamb was nothing short of superb. After a turbulent trio with the other two principals, she assessed her desperate situation, her body flayed open and visually tacked like a botanical specimen to the panel behind her. 

The Orchestra La Scintilla played under the animated direction of conductor Giovanni Antonini, but the production also included the Swiss Radio Chorus, who performed handsomely as an opera configuration. Further, Liliana Nikiteanu was a compassionate Clotilde, the nursemaid, and Reinaldo Macias excelled in his role as Flavio.

Economically, the schoolroom set that became a full-blown gathering place for the Vichy supporters changed only when that single dark panel behind narrowed the stage space to a frontal corridor. There, raking spotlights relentlessly ‘exposed’ the action of the protagonist’s inner turmoil. What’s more, the figures cast large shadows – signing that their private acts would have far-reaching, public consequences – a simple but brilliant twist of stage design by the gifted Christian Fenouillat and light designer Christophe Forey. Finally, the costumes by Agostino Cavalca were the yummy tweeds and vests of the 1940s that through no fault of their own sometimes point today to the quirky and/or devious.

Bartoli stood alone in the lingering ‘smoke’ of her immolation for the very first curtain call, her hair chopped down to the quick like Joan of Arc reincarnate. For a long time, she stared straight ahead, still fully immersed in the role. Only two or three minutes later did she came back to herself with the full cast to generously thank the orchestra, her fellow singers, even the audience. Not surprisingly, Zurich just ate it up whole – it was her show, really, and theatre at its very best.