This production of Norma was definitely one of total beauty, maybe the best staging seen at the San Carlo in recent years. Lorenzo Amato's production respected the libretto’s story and poetry, also avoiding hackneyed or even risible elements that easily come up in mind from doing it in togas and Roman helmets. Scenographer Ezio Frigerio’s impressive set showed a clearing in a daunting (seemingly haunted) wood, dominated by a huge tree trunk and steep rocks all around, which represented the centre of the Druids' cult of Irminsur. In this atmosphere, to which is added the outstanding costumes by former Academy Award winner Franca Squarciapino, the staging was perfectly rooted in the tradition, as far as time and place of action are concerned.

<i>Norma</i> at Teatro San Carlo © Luciano Romano
Norma at Teatro San Carlo
© Luciano Romano

But, even if it’s quite obvious that any setting of Bellini's masterpiece tries to design a credible dramatic outline of the Druids’ fight for freedom, this staging was original in that Amato focused on the more intimate aspects of the opera, and kept the winds of war between Gauls and Romans blowing only in the back.

Norma being slippery ground for singers, the singers here all showed self-assurance. As one of the most challenging vocal roles in opera, the title character requires a wide range and great technique and energy. She must produce moving pianissimos, sudden dramatic rushes and coloratura effects in abundance. Above all, she must also be able to mesmerize the audience with one of the best-known and awaited arias ever, “Casta Diva.”

Mariella Devia (Norma) © Luciano Romano
Mariella Devia (Norma)
© Luciano Romano

Daniela Schillaci (which alternated in the title role with the Italian Queen of bel canto Mariella Devia) definitely deserved the audience’s acclamation. She sang the priestess who broke her vows and eventually chooses to die with her lover, with beautiful colour, sound volume and fine phrasing also in the high register. Her “Casta Diva” rendition was up with the greatest interpreters.

Schillaci found in Anna Goryachova her perfect antagonist; in the role of Adalgisa, the Russian mezzo showed good acting skills, as well as a beautiful voice, and was at ease in the high register of her role. The duets between the two ladies are like a dramatic fil-rouge throughout the opera. In the first duet, they don't know they're in love with the same man, the Roman proconsul Pollione, and, as Norma reveals that she had by him two children which she was somehow able to hide from her fellow Druids, Adalgisa shows her sisterly love to Norma with affectionate innocence. Their superb second duet is another climax of the opera and director Amato was able to exploit all its potential. One of the main assets of his direction was the clear rationality both of characters' interactions and stage movements, which were always motivated and well-coordinated.

<i>Norma</i> at Teatro San Carlo © Luciano Romano
Norma at Teatro San Carlo
© Luciano Romano

Stefan Pop as Pollione was less sophisticated than his female partners, but he sang with heroic thrust. He has a pleasant dramatic tenor with a beautiful timbre and perfect diction and intonation and outlined a man living an emotional conflict between his role as head of the Roman occupying force and his love for the two Druid priestesses.

A fine supporting cast included bass Giacomo Prestia as Norma’s father, an authoritative Oroveso who touched deep dramatic strings in the finale; mezzo-soprano Clarissa Costanzo as Norma’s devoted maid Clotilde; and tenor Francesco Pittari as Pollione’s comrade, Flavio. The San Carlo chorus provided a commendable accompaniment.

Conductor Nello Santi expanded the tempi as he usually does: nonetheless, he is an expert conductor who knows how bel canto should go, and contributed to delineate each and every dramatic facet of the tragedy, making the emotional pulse strongly beat in many passages, supported by a reliable San Carlo orchestra.