As an example of this, take a look at the opening of the opera’s second half (it’s on YouTube in two separate parts). In a nighttime scene, Norma is wrestling in her mind whether or not to kill her two children by Pollione, who’s planning to run off with a younger woman. The scene is intensely atmospheric, with the sleeping adolescents sprawled on a bed and Norma fingering the blade of a knife. The set evokes the stern but simultaneously sensuous affluence of ancient Rome, though Norma is actually a druid priestess in distant Gaul.
But then the whole production puts visual splendor before historical accuracy. Instead of Gallic druids in the opening scene, for instance, there are Roman legionnaires, even though the occupying Romans are precisely who the druids are committed to resisting until Norma tells them to hold off (because the Roman commander is her former lover Pollione). Nevertheless, the whole effect, with the druids actually a Japanese chorus, is simultaneously bizarre and deeply engaging. All praise, then, to Argentinean director and designer Hugo de Ana — his is a truly magnificent production.
But where does it come from? All my attempts to identify the original DVD have failed. Maybe it was a video made for Japanese TV. Anyway, watching it on YouTube constitutes a huge pleasure.
The classic rendition of Norma on DVD remains Montserrat Caballe and Jon Vickers in their outdoor performance in the ancient Roman amphitheater at Orange, France, in 1974. The wind lifts the veils of Norma and her priestesses just after her famous aria ‘Casta diva’ (chaste goddess) with an extraordinary effectiveness that couldn’t have been foreseen. It’s small wonder Caballe calls this her most memorable opera performance.
Finally, Bellini’s La Sonnambula (the sleep-walker) from Cagliari in Sardinia in 2008. Sardinia can’t often contract the greatest soloists, one assumes, but Eglise Gutierrez as Amina and Antonino Siragusa as her lover Elvino are acceptable, as is Simone Alaimo as Count Rodolfo (though he’s no Clabassi).
The two lovers are characterized by light, almost transparent voices that aren’t immediately very pleasing. To suggest that this is what Bellini requires is to insult the composer — I, for one, prefer soloists who you could imagine in Wagner, even when it isn’t Wagner they’re performing. What characterize this production are again the sets and the treatment of the chorus, which both seem to be in imitation of an 18th century painting tradition. All in all, though, there could be a stronger Sonnambula than this.
The key operatic events of the last month, incidentally, were the new Parsifal at the Met, starring Jonas Kaufmann, and the premier in Madrid of Philip Glass’s new opera The Perfect American, about Walt Disney. We hope to review both these as soon as they become available.