Treacherous Beauty, in Bellini's 'Norma'
The 2016, Royal Opera House production of Bellini's opera that's presented -- and pictured -- here is by the Catalan company La Fura dels Baus, and it takes quite a few liberties with the opera's characters and settings. In the original, Norma is a Druid priestess, during the Roman occupation of Gaul. The London production is set in more modern times, and makes Norma a member of a violent and rebellious religious cult, with apparently Christian overtones. And the original Roman characters become oppressive, militaristic authority figures, looking to eliminate the cult.
The production received somewhat mixed reviews, and it's potentially puzzling concept is a bit difficult to convey on the radio. So, we'll stick with a fairly standard summary of the story, as it's heard in the music. That is, at least until the tragic ending, where there's another unusual -- and audible -- twist. But, more about that when we get there.
The opera is in two acts, and revolves around a story of forbidden love -- love between enemies. And again, at least in the original, the opposing factions are the native Druids, and the occupying Romans. The Druid Priestess named Norma has fallen in love with the Roman official Pollione, and has secretly born him two children.
As ACT ONE begins, the Druid leader Oroveso instructs his followers to enter the sacred forest and wait for Norma, his daughter, who will signal the start of a planned revolt against the Romans.
When the Druids leave, we find Pollione talking with the centurion Flavio. Pollione admits that he no longer loves Norma. His new romantic interest is the young acolyte Adalgisa, one of Norma's temple virgins. In the forest, a brass gong sounds. Pollione and Flavio leave, and a chorus announces the arrival of Norma.
As she cuts the sacred mistletoe, Norma sings the famous aria "Casta Diva," a prayer to the goddess for victory over the Romans. The Druids follow Norma off, leaving Adalgisa alone to struggle her emotions. She's torn between her love for Pollione and her loyalty to her duties, and to Norma. Pollione joins Adalgisa, and begs her to elope with him to Rome.
Scene Two takes place at Norma's home. She tells her friend Clotilde to hide the two little boys -- the sons Norma had with Pollione. She's afraid of her ambivalent feelings towards them: "I love, and at the same time, hate, my children," she says.
Adalgisa pays a visit to Norma, asking to be released from her vows. She admits she's found love, though she doesn't say with whom. Norma is touched, remembering her own early days with Pollione. She agrees to release Adalgisa from her vows. But when Pollione arrives, the truth comes out. Norma realizes that has betrayed her with Adalgisa, and Adalgisa learns that Pollione had pledged himself to Norma.
The act closes in a fiery confrontation. Norma curses Pollione, saying "My burning fury will engulf you like the wind and the waves." She orders them both to leave, but Adalgisa says she would rather die than desert her people.
So far, Norma has come across as an unpredictable, and even dangerous woman. Still, in ACT TWO, we find her sounding vulnerable and filled with doubt -- and with a knife in her hand. She's still angry with Pollione, and contemplates killing their two young sons. She raises her dagger over the sleeping children, but at the last moment backs down.
Norma calls for Adalgisa, and tells her to take the children and go live with Pollione in Rome. In a spectacular duet, Adalgisa says she won't do it. Instead, she'll tell Pollione of Norma's suffering, hoping that will move him to come back to Norma.
The scene changes to the sacred forest. Oroveso tells his Druid warriors to keep their anger for the Romans in check. They must wait for just the right moment to attack. They leave, and Norma is alone with Clotilde, who tells Norma that Adalgisa has failed to change Pollione's mind. He still loves Adalgisa, and plans to carry her off to Rome.
Norma is furious. "The Traitor will go too far," she says, "but I will strike first, and Roman blood will flow like water." She runs to the altar and strikes the ceremonial brass shield, summoning the troops to battle.
In the commotion, an intruder is discovered within the Druid temple. It's Pollione. The punishment for any outsider entering the temple is instant death, and Norma is poised to kill him with the sacred dagger. But she hesitates, admitting to herself that she can't go through with it.
Taking Pollione aside, Norma offers him freedom if he will leave Adalgisa. But Pollione refuses, saying he'd sooner die. Norma says she'd be delighted to arrange for that, and for the death of their two young sons, plus the death of his beloved Adalgisa. Pollione begs Norma for mercy.
Suddenly, Norma calls for her people, announcing that Pollione won't be killed after all. Instead, there's a new victim, one who has betrayed her country. "I am the guilty one," she says, and then calls for the sacrificial pyre to be prepared. The crowd tries to bring Norma to her senses, but she won't budge. She's determined to go down in flames.
In her final words to Oroveso, Norma admits that she is the mother of Pollione's children, and she asks her father to protect them. Her courage revives Pollione's love for her, and he joins her. Then, in this controversial, updated production from London, Oroveso decides to save his daughter from a death by fire, and shoots her as the opera ends.