Written in the spring of 1831 and premiering at La Scala in Milan that same December, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is a tragedy in two acts that is set in Gaul around 50 BC. Launching the opera, Druids, led by Oroveso and manned here with tall wooden staffs, are praying for victory against the invading Romans. Their High Priestess, Norma, whom they hope will break the peace and confront their enemy, has – unbeknownst to them – actually violated her vow of celibacy with Pollione, the Roman proconsul who has fathered her two young children.

Maria Agresta (Norma)
© Toni Suter | T&T Fotografie

Early on, Pollione shares with his servant, Flavio, that he no longer loves Norma, and is drawn instead to the priestess, Adalgisa. It is she, he sings, by whose power he is “protected and defended” and with whom he hopes to return to Rome. Unaware of his history, Adalgisa initially agrees to his devious plan, and only later puts her loyalties to Norma above those of her love for the errant Roman. In Act 2, events turn cataclysmic. When Pollione is captured by the Druids and threatened with death, Norma offers him his freedom if he forfeits Adalgisa and returns to her instead. When he rejects that, Norma confesses her sins and offers herself as a sacrifice in his stead, an act of benevolence which affects Pollione so viscerally that he joins her on the pyre. There’s no burning in this production, but her standing before a diffuse suggestion of painted flame with her back to the audience, arms raised above her head was gripping enough: a breathtaking image.

By any standard, the story requires a certain suspension of disbelief but it’s in that realm of suspended reality that Robert Wilson makes his mark. He asks his audience to step away from period sets and props, and focus on the essence of the music, on the primal dimension of human emotions portrayed. Everything is kept strictly to a bare minimum, while the music and its passionate exploration stay at the forefront of the theatrical experience.

The singers were exposed in an unprecedented way inasmuch as Wilson deliberately chose to suspend natural action. Not only did each of them move at a snail’s pace throughout, but every studied movement saw their arms as appendages designed only to gesture and pose. There was never an embrace, nor was eye contact made; even the lovers looked out into space rather than at one another.

The closest equivalent to this tradition might be Japanese Noh theatre, one characterised by its sparse staging and actors’ slow grace. That said, the lighting and minimal sets supported his artistic statement. The very first backdrop, which carried simple geometric figures that were lit up on dark ground, was reminiscent of work by Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy. Fans of James Turrell’s shallow space constructions could also find his signature “window” projected as another minimalist gesture. By contrast, a truncated pyramid with its jagged mirrors interior makes Norma’s retreat three-dimensional; it unhinged and spun almost out of control to show disfunction and distress after the revelation of Pollione’s indiscretion. Moidele Bickel’s slick costumes included Oroveso’s petunia-like collar and Adalgisa’s big carrot-colored hair, both tremendous visually.

Most importantly, the singers and chorus deserve every accolade. Maria Agresta roused the house as a stellar Norma with her spectacular soprano; her character’s dilemma and pain were palpable. As the steady Oroveso, bass Ildo Song distinguished himself as one of the most gifted of the Zurich Opera Studio recent graduates, even though the staging saw him repeatedly planted in one place. Michael Spyres, in his role debut as Pollione, sang brilliantly, barring a few strained high notes close to the start; and mezzo-soprano Anna Goryachova, as Adalgisa, gave an utterly flawless vocal performance in the bel canto genre, for which she is most highly acclaimed. Finally, under Fabio Luisi’s vigorous baton, Philharmonia Zürich mastered the many contrasts in Bellini's score. 

No question: sustaining every gesture almost to the point of a stand-still was a terrific physical challenge to the singers, over and beyond their punishing vocal parts. Overall, Wilson's artifice and its imposition on the production were as much a burden as an enhancement. Stilted, self-conscious by virtue of not wanting to imitate, and doing little to enhance the drama and stage presence of the superb singers themselves, the opera might have worked just as well in a concert version. In short, the piece had Wilson's signature all over it, but felt like a wagon in front of the horse.