By Bryson David Hoff
There seems to always be a place in the cultural landscape of any society at any given point in time for a medium that explores the deep nature of human emotion and motivation in a grandiose and spectacular fashion.
In our times, the argument could be made that that medium is the television drama. From Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, the draw of these so-called “golden age” shows is the balance they strike between their Aristotelian spectacle and their Freudian attention to the inner life of their characters.
In the Lyric Opera’s new production of Norma, director Kevin Newbury masterfully channels the aesthetics of this current popular form of entertainment in order to bring a sense of currency to an art form that once occupied the same cultural niche that the television drama presently fills.
The opera, set during the expansionist phase of the Roman Empire, centers around a love triangle between Norma, a Gaul and druidic priestess, the local Roman proconsul Pollione, with whom she has secretly produced two children, and a Adalgisa, a young priestess who struggles to reconcile her religious beliefs with her blooming lust for the Roman. The romantic drama is further exacerbated by the roiling tension between the native Gauls and the Roman conquerors, which threatens at any moment to explode into open revolt and revolution.
The cast is universally excellent, as is to be expected from a world-class company like the Lyric. Tenor Russell Thomas sets the bar high in the act one entrance of his forceful Pollione. The consistency of tone across his full range of notes make his high notes resonate with a power that makes him a true delight to hear. Meanwhile, his physical performance belies the internal conflict of a man torn between his duty to country, his obligation to his children, and his untamed passions.
But of course, the bulk of the accolades must go to soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. Norma, a role once described by the great soprano Lilli Lehmann as more taxing than all three Brünnhilde roles in Wagner’s Ring Cycle combined, is here embodied with a delicate grace and strength, helped along by costuming that make Radvanovsky literally glow. The glass-bell quality of the vocal instrument, which is particularly attuned to the dynamic contrasts of the role, makes her interpretation of the famous Casta diva aria (presented in its original key) simply sublime, weaving an enchantment that persisted through the evening, even as the vocal demands of the role began to wear on her in later moments.
The production’s set and costume design, devised by David Korins and Jessica Jahn, respectively, have been a source of controversy since Newbury’s Norma had its debut in San Francisco in 2014, with many deriding them as simultaneously grim and kitschy in their attempts at mass-market appeal. While they may not have the same sylvan grandeur of a more traditional production, the stone-and-roughspun-barbarian concept create a very specific world that both evokes our era’s current culture monoliths and illuminates the brutal realities of the opera’s setting.
A medieval fortress with racks of spears, swords, and crossbows might be a far cry from the forested glade called for in the text, but it reminds the audience that all of the human drama is underscored by the very real threat of full-scale violence breaking out should the lead characters’ love triangle shift in the wrong direction. It is also worth noting that, while the influence of Game of Thrones and the History Channel’s Vikings is clear, the production team is smart enough not to draw attention to it in the staging, thus making Norma a story taking place in a world with a similar look, but which has its own rules, customs, and states of affair.
In the end, however, whether or not the production design bothers the audience, the real treat of Norma is the chance to hear the rarely staged opera sung as it was intended to be sung. As such, little accessibility to draw in some audience members who might be otherwise alienated can and should be forgiven by the purist.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Norma” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive through February 24. More information and tickets are available here.