How can we make a 19th-century peplum with druids of Gaul and Roman soldiers interesting to a contemporary audience? Let’s stage Norma as if it was a low-budget Game of Thrones episode shot in the nineties, with gaudy period costumes and lots of projected flames and fumes! Davide Livermore and his artistic crew must have thought this was a good idea and turned the comeback of Bellini’s masterpiece to the operatic stage of Madrid (after decades of neglect) into a tribute to class-B fantasy cinema, clumsy action scenes and movie goofs included. The result was a production as hollow as the giant dead oak tree that presided over the dark stage.

<i>Norma</i> at Teatro Real © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Norma at Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Not even the vague promise of Lucy Lawless doing a cameo as a Gaul warrior princess kept the interest alive in an otherwise forgettable production. Norma is a role that has been shaped, as no other has ever been, by the singer who created it, Giuditta Pasta, and the soprano who revived it in modern times, Maria Callas. Their unique personalities have somewhat cursed a role that requires an unclassifiable vocality. Sopranos must try to navigate their way between the solemn religious leader, the tormented sinner, the reluctant mother, the deceived lover, the tender friend and, finally, the expiatory victim. It may come as a surprise in a chiefly lyrical soprano, but Maria Agresta was only fully convincing as the latter, when she finally unbridled her voice and plunged into the vivid dramatism of the last scene.

Maria Agresta (Norma) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Maria Agresta (Norma)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
The rest of her performance was limited by constant over-care, as if she was not sure about her voice’s ability to survive Bellini's merciless score, which resulted in an overall feeling of coldness and inexpressiveness (imprecise diction did not help either). Her timbre is beautiful and definitely has a personal touch, but sounded artificially darkened at times. Not exactly a technical virtuoso, her coloratura was generally far from convincing (she even avoided the repeat of “Ah bello a me ritorna”) and all the attempts at mezza voce lost colour and position. She sang, however, a more than correct “Casta diva” and a great “Mira o Norma”, where she perfectly matched her Adalgisa.

In an original break up from tradition, Norma’s true match is not her lover Pollione but Adalgisa. She plays the innocent Doppelgänger, a painful mirror of the past who is repeating the same mistakes that have led Norma into an unbearable situation. It is through their two wonderful duos that the plot advances and the ambivalence of Norma’s feelings towards her is one of the most interesting dramatic subtleties in Romantic opera. French mezzosoprano Karine Deshayes played a true protagonist and created a passionate and moving Adalgisa, thanks to her rich, creamy voice and her solid technique.

Gregory Kunde sang as if he was permanently trying to steal the show, inserting several unwritten top notes. He employed creative variations in the first two phrases of the second part of his aria and in the whole da capo of the cabaletta, a practice that was already anachronistic in Bellini’s times. He unleashed all his fiery phrasing and his command of bel canto style to portray a manly and authoritative Pollione. In his final scene, the accent turned patrician and tragic and he really enjoyed playing the dignified hero. A true achievement, despite the evident signs of weariness.

Karine Deshayes (Adalgisa) and Gregory Kunde (Pollione) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Karine Deshayes (Adalgisa) and Gregory Kunde (Pollione)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Michele Pertusi was a stony Oroveso, dark and martial, but maybe lacking a bit of contrast and flexibility. Both Maria Miró and Antonio Lozano were superb as Clotilde and Flavio. The choir sounded magnificent, especially in the great finale.

The orchestra of the Teatro Real, conducted by Roberto Abbado, played with energy and good pulse, revealing at the same time the dark lyricism of the score. However, as in the recent Otello, the orchestra could not hide one of its structural limitations: it does not speak fluid Italian. During the Mortier years, this orchestra did not have a permanent conductor, but first-rate conductors were invited to perform mainly Wagner and contemporary repertoire. Since Ivor Bolton's appointment, the orchestra still lacks serious training in the Italian Romantic repertoire, a major liability for a house that intends to put Italian repertoire at the core of its season. Imprecision and blurriness in quick, dramatic phrases, were evident, as was a saturated sound and an overall lack of italianità. However, Bellini’s score was not transformed, despite Livermore's best efforts, into a “Warrior Druidess” soundtrack.