Light my fire: “Norma” at Lyric Opera

Classical Music Critic

What: “Norma”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr. When: Through Feb. 25

Bellini’s “Norma,” a towering bel canto work, has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a new-to-Chicago production containing thrills galore.

While the Druids of Gaul plot to defeat the Romans who have conquered them, high priestess Norma has secretly been having an affair with the Roman leader Pollione only to discover she has been replaced in his heart by the novice priestess Adalgisa. Norma is enraged and fears for the fate of the young children she and Pollione share while Adalgisa rejects the Roman when she discovers that she is not his first love. Love, betrayal and oppression collide and the result is fantastic opera.

Librettist Felice Romani set the story in 50 BCE, but director Kevin Newbury has chosen a new time period for his “Norma.” That in itself is hardly surprising, as updaters litter the opera landscape. What’s unusual is that Newbury has made himself a backdater; he places the action some thousand years earlier than Romani — the Iron Age.

It’s cheering that a director doesn’t feel that times distant from our own are too tedious for the art form many feel is itself timeless, but as so often happens the new setting adds nothing to our understanding of the inner workings of the story.

The single set, created by David Korins, is presumably meant to represent an ancient temple but it looks more like a cavernous garage. It is festooned with bull’s heads high above the floor and features mighty, thick pillars. In this space a huge, awkward cart with a staircase allows Norma to ascend above her followers to give them instruction. No garage is complete without a garage door, this one operated by a pulley using large stone counterweights which when opened reveals a forest outside. Strangely enough, the cart, which is laboriously wheeled around to utter distraction, never leaves through the garage door, but somehow finds its way offstage from the side.

The set does serve to establish a dark and gloomy environment for tragedy to unfold and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role holds court here. Norma is a treacherously difficult role and Radvanovsky has many of the skills required. She brings a voice with power and fortitude and creates many truly splendid moments, notably in the second act when Norman and Adalgisa reconcile.

Yet there are clear flaws. In the famous “Casta Diva” she sometimes fails to land on the right pitch, her legato is spoiled by oddly placed breaths, and her movement from glorious pianissimos (these alone worth the price of admission) to louder volumes sounds like a car going from first gear to fourth without any intermediate steps.

Making his Lyric debut, tenor Russell Thomas is a marvelous Pollione. This singer is a firecracker, providing sparks with his bold bravado. He also smolders in his love scene with Adalgisa where he is immensely seductive.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong brings all the goods providing a stupendous Adalgisa. Her low notes are smoky and rich while her upper range is full of silver. DeShong and Thomas together create the anchor for this “Norma,” and what a wonderful anchor it is.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli sometimes sounds hollow as Norma’s father Oroveso. However he looks rather nice in his huge flowing robe accoutered with a big stick.

Two third-year Ryan Center members make up the rest of the cast. Soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi as Clotilde sings with dignity and calm. Tenor Jesse Donner as Flavio exudes masculinity and good cheer.

Riccardo Frizza makes his first Lyric appearance in the pit and leads the orchestra in a well-paced performance. The winds shine and the strings are warm and pretty. Prepared by Michael Black, the chorus sounds appropriately boisterous and beautiful in turns.

The Iron Age setting is accentuated by simple costumes by Jessica Jahn, although one wonders how Norma’s elaborate and utterly divine gowns could have been created in this era. Also, Adalgisa has been cheated by the costume department where no one seems to have received the memo that this character stole the love of the opera’s top dude. It’s hard to imagine with the novice dressed in such a dumpy frock.

Wigmaster and makeup designer Sarah Hatten makes interesting contributions, giving the singers matted hair and intriguing facial tattoos.

Newbury doesn’t offer much in the way of action on the stage, so there’s lots of park and bark. The supernumeraries who play Norma’s children are fetching, but Norma’s interaction with them is physically cold and unconvincing. Yet Newbury seems to have worked overtime on trivial details. The director has devised a gesture for the Druids which they regularly employ: hand to head to wrist to heart which wouldn’t be out of place in a “Star Trek” episode.

The ending is clearly awkward. Norma and Pollione are about to die by fire. Newbury believes that Druids would have the victim of such an exercise light her own pyre. (I know nothing of Druids; perhaps he is right, but it seems to put a lot of trust in a guilty party.) As the opera comes to a close, Radvanovsky moves her torch around as if trying to ignite something, but nothing happens. (This production has already been seen in San Francisco where a review noted that she does start a fire.) Then when the stage goes suddenly to black at opera’s end, the flame stubbornly continues to burn for a bit, spoiling the effect. Perhaps this will be sorted out for later performances.

In spite of the weaknesses, this is a “Norma” well worth seeing. There is a lot of singing which is gripping, and the fascinating story moves forward at a perfect pace. Perfection is rare, and very, very good should be embraced and enjoyed.