A masterpiece of the bel canto genre, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is a tragedia lirica in two acts that premiered in Milan in December of 1831. Felice Romani’s libretto draws on Alexandre Soumet’s play Norma, ou L'infanticide and sets the theatrical events in Gaul at around 50 BC. The story underscores the war between the Druids and Romans, but also highlights an emotive personal conflict that is veiled in shadow, deceit and cultural discrepancy.

Carmen Giannattasio (Norma)
© Wilfried Hösl

Munich’s stately production is largely the work of Jürgen Rose, who not only oversaw the sets and staging, but also devised a superb lighting concept and designed the costumes. Animated musical direction by Daniele Callegari met with a tremendous reception. The rousting overture alone was a surprise, unexpectedly combining a kick-up-your-heels melody with the strains of a military march.

But for as solid as the orchestration showed itself throughout, it took a good measure of time for the principals in Act 1 to warm up. The highly expressive style of singing that should mirror the “zeal of the ardent spirit” was lacking in the beginning, even in Norma herself. While the heaviest drama was yet to come, few sparks flew in the clandestine relationship between the Roman consul, Pollione (Joseph Calleja), and the Druid priestess Norma (Carmen Giannattasio), who is also the mother to his two children. Indeed, Norma’s “Casta diva” prayer for peace, one of the most iconic of operatic arias, was somewhat lacking in heft and promise. And while Ms Giannattasio’s high voice was secure, her middle voice was considerably less so at the start of the evening.

The opera’s plot revolves around an awkward love triangle. The servant Adalgisa confides in her mistress, Norma, that she has abused their religion for having taken a Roman lover, with whom she plans to escape the next day. Norma is furious when she discovers that the man in question is Pollione, father of her two children. In an unwaveringly selfless act, Adalgisa reaffirms her devoted loyalty to her mistress by offering to abandon her plan with the devious two-timer.

Norma, on the other hand, shows herself less noble than her servant. At the start of Act 2, she seriously considers murdering her two youngsters just to strike back at their father. Fortunately, she abandons that plan, and steps forward to save the errant Roman when the Druid High Priest Oroveso (the fine bass, Goran Jurić) announces that Pollione has desecrated the Druid temple and must pay for the crime with his life. Norma, in turn, assures Pollione that his life can be spared if he abandons Adalgisa and returns to her and their children. But when he refuses, she confesses to the Druid congregation to their shared intimacies in the past, thereby virtually condemning herself, as a priestess, to death. Contrary to the libretto, the Munich production ends with Norma walking alone to her immolation. Pollione is spared the fire, but plagued by insurmountable guilt.

Freddie De Tommaso (Flavio) and Joseph Calleja (Pollione)
© Wilfried Hösl

American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower excelled from the start in the role of Adalgisa, and endowed her difficult role with freshness and true compassion. She mastered the whole range of emotions her part demanded: evidence of true friendship, humility, deference to her superiors and a youthful naiveté. As Pollione, Calleja gave a strong delivery, but sometimes lacked variation in timbre. In further supporting roles as Flavio and Clothilde, Pollione’s and Norma’s respective friends, both Freddie De Tommaso and Vlada Borovko gave solid vocal performances. Highly commendable, too, were fine acting skills by the young Timon Pal and Leander Starbatty, who convincingly played the two children.

Rose’s set design is memorable. The interior space was defined by a striking Constructivist detail: a huge white triangle that towered over the dark-costumed figures below. Later, the “field” set, with its vertical bundles of metal staves distributed throughout an undefined landscape, also gave a convincing dimension. The chorus, standing in it in pockets loosely arranged, sang superbly under Stellario Fagone’s direction.

The opera’s ending is not a happy one; Pollione’s two-timing is revealed, Norma herself is doomed to burn. But the work’s inherent clash of religious cultures has widespread relevance to the modern audience, and what’s more, Norma gives a viable insight into marital quirks and loyalty, one that, even in this day and age, it would likely do many of us some good to review.