When National Symphony Orchestra director Chien Wen-pin (簡文彬) planned his current series aimed at introducing Taiwanese audiences to a range of operatic masterpieces, he chose Amadeus Mozart's three mature Italian operas, Richard Wagner's Tristan, Guiseppe Verdi's Falstaff (due in April), Hector Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, Giacomo Puccini's Tosca and Giovanni Bellini's Norma. The first five of these are unquestionably supreme masterpieces. Tosca, the opening production, was presumably selected to attract audiences to the project as a whole, and Damnation (less than a master work) to represent French opera. Why, then, Norma? Surely because it is the greatest of all operas written in the early 19th century bel canto style.
The opera is set 2,000 years ago in Gaul (France) under Roman occupation. Opposition to the Romans is led by the Druids, and Norma is the chief Druid priestess. But she has compromised her position by falling in love with the Roman commander, Pollione, and together they have had two children. She consequently instructs the Druids, led by her father Oroveso, to hold back from active resistance until such time as the Romans' power declines naturally, as inevitably it will. This is what she urges in her prayer to the moon, Casta Diva ("chaste goddess"), the opera's most famous aria.
Unfortunately for Norma, Pollione has recently turned his attentions to a younger Druid priestess, Adalgisa. When she comes to confess her profane love to Norma, and the identity of her lover is revealed, the two women are launched into a series of duets (together with Pollione, who inappropriately shows up at the same moment). Feminine solidarity prevails, however, and Norma repairs to the temple to see to her duties, possibly including tending the sacred mistletoe.
But when she hears that Pollione is planning to return to Rome with Adalgisa in tow, she strikes the temple gong and calls for all-out war against the Romans. Pollione, meanwhile, is caught red-handed among the priestesses in the sacred precinct and is brought on stage as a prisoner. Here is the human sacrifice Druid ritual requires, and it's Norma herself who has to see to the arrangements. But who was his female accomplice? All is set for Norma to denounce Adalgisa and get her double revenge. Instead, however, she names herself. She arranges for her father to look after her children, Pollione rediscovers her essential nobility and selflessness, and together the two reunited lovers walk away to be burnt alive on the sacrificial pyre.
Norma is a notoriously difficult soprano role, but also a glorious one. Often, productions have been mounted simply to display the talents of a supremely gifted diva. Adalgisa, a mezzo-soprano part, also contains wonderful music. Pollione too, though placed low for the traditional tenor voice, is a rewarding role for a strong singer. And all bel canto opera is singer-oriented. Both story and orchestral accompaniment are essentially subservient to the display singing that is both beautiful and technically demanding.
So what can we expect from tonight's Taipei line-up? Chu Tai-li (