Watching an inner circle of Druids contemplate the eventual fall of Rome, my thoughts turned to Game of Thrones, to Mad Maxx’s Thunderdome, even alighting ever so briefly on our own political landscape.
Lyric Opera’s production Bellini’s beautiful 1831 opera carefully builds such a world, with Iron Age sets in neutral grays, tattooed warriors in leather, heads shaved or dreadlocks piled high, wielding battleaxes, calling for war with the Romans who have desecrated their forest sanctums.
Then comes Norma, part priestess, part divinity, channeling to her people the spirits of the gods of earth. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is the embodiment of the celebrated bel canto singing Bellini calls for, the carefully crafted libretto all gorgeous melody and harmony – no shouted operatic dialog, just lyrical musical poetry in song. This is opera for opera haters.
Norma must certainly be the most accessible of the operas produced by the Lyric, and its success – along with Bellini’s masterful composition – is largely on the strength of the designers of its costumes and sets. Above those Druids (that term refers to the learned class among the Celtic people of Europe) a sacred oak floats on its side. A rolling altar brings priestess Norma up to the tree, where she cut the boughs of Mistletoe with a golden sickle. This is the very ceremony the real Celtic Druids would hold on new moons following the Winter Solstice. Notably women and men shared the power in this society whose women took the lead.
While I am not deeply schooled in the opera form and knew nothing of Norma before attending, I was very much able to feel, see and hear all this happening on the Lyric Opera stage, where Norma works her magic. The opera overall was a co-production of the Lyric, the San Francisco Opera, Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. And no wonder it is so wonderful:
• The set was designed by David Korins, nominated for a Tony for his sets on Hamilton, with scenery built and painted in the shops at the Canada and San Francisco Opera
• Costumes are by Jessica Jahn, and were fabricated at the San Francisco Opera costume shop; makeup and wigs are by Sarah Hatten
• Lighting, by Duane Schuler, is a huge part of the production, allowing the singers to concentrate on their music while shifting the focal point in concert with the development of each scene.
The traditional opera-style drama in the story stems from two Druid women secretly falling for the same Roman proconsul – the emissary whose culture will ultimately destroy the Celt’s world. But this drama rises to a level of tragedy, as Norma determines that, having destroyed her priestly standing, and broken her spiritual bond with her secret love affair with the Roman, she must leave her role, and sacrifice her life in a ritual ceremony.
Tenor Russell Thomas as the Roman proconsul Pollione is the perfect vocal complement to Radvanosky (she is from Berwyn, by the way), and bass Andrea Silvestrelli towers (literally - he is quite tall - and musically) above the scenes as Norma’s father, Oroveso.
As an opera, this production is sterling. The Lyric Opera Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Frizza, was flawless, supporting in perfect balance the soloists and chorus. Kevin Newbury directed the action at a steady clip, never lagging, and paced continuously in harmony with the score.
The design of this production is much more than window dressing. It conveys the essence of a timeless story: a noble native culture is upended by powerful invaders, whose influence portends the end of a way of life. Lyric Opera's Norma is highly recommended.