Friday, August 26, 2005

Norma on a Scorched Earth Stage

"Norma" is an early 19-century Italian opera by Vincenzo Bellini that is one of the masterpieces of the repertory, and easily Bellini's finest work. The simple plot takes place during the Roman occupation of England (which lasted 400 years) with Norma, the top Druid Priestess, having an affair with a Roman officer before the curtain goes up, secretly bearing two children by him. (Hey, it's a dark forest.)

When Adalgisa the Vestal Virgin comes to Norma for advice about HER love of a Roman soldier, Norma is quite sympathetic until the Roman walks in and it's Pollione, the same guy who fathered her two children. Potential Medea action ensues, until Adalgisa, in a great proto-feminist moment, tells Norma that she is giving up her love for Pollione because he's already Norma's guy, and they sing "Mira, O Norma," one of the greatest female duets ever written.

Pollione the Roman tenor, however, is a cad and insists on sticking with the younger woman, so Norma goes a bit insane and in the final scene calls all her Druids to her in the middle of the forest and announces that there is a "traitor amongst us." The expectation is that she's going to name Adalgisa, but instead she announces, "and it is me." Pollione, the Roman cad, is moved by her noble gesture and goes to Norma as they make their way to a funeral pyre where they are burned alive together as the chorus sings how sad they are.

Opera really doesn't get any better than this, which is why the initial staging for the chorus and supernumeraries earlier this week was such a disappointment. Instead of a beautiful Druid forest, the set was an ugly collection of wood that is painted black on the first ten feet to represent a "scorched earth" policy by the Romans who have been burning down the forest. I thought this was a ridiculous invention of the director, but an older Irish-American woman told me today at lunch that it was true, the Romans did burn down forests in their pursuit of the Druids who were fighting them.

I found a few sites on the internet that confirmed the information, and are interesting of their own accord. If you want to know about Druids, click here.
If you're interested in a history of the Roman Invasion of Britain, click here.
If you're interested in reading about Boudicca, a real Woman Celtic Chieftain who took on the Romans and burned down an early version of London while she was at it, click here.

However, the "concept" is so at odds with the lilting, dancelike music of Bellini that it's laughable. I've never seen a production where the chorus scenes weren't at least slightly ridiculous just because getting a huge group of singers on and off the stage never makes much sense, but this is going to be truly wrong. This became clear every time the conductor, Sara Jobin, would conduct a bit of music and sing as a cover for the bass Oroveso (Norma's dad)...

...while the rehearsal pianist played the beautiful music that seemed to have nothing to do with the "masculine, muscular" brutality that was supposedly happening onstage.

The debuting director, James Robinson, an American who runs the Colorado Opera Company in Denver, explained that early in his career he had staged a "Norma" in Europe (Sweden, actually) that was very "pretty," but that he was dissatisfied with the result because the music and the production were just all "too pretty." This production was created for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 1998, and was meant to be more of a dissonant approach, with pretty music and "ugly" staging.

We all agreed that we would much rather be in his "pretty" staging instead, with a pretty forest. Part of the reason is that Pamala Rosenberg, the recently ousted General Director of the San Francisco Opera, has a taste for dark, monochromatic, "Eurotrash" Productions with a Concept, complete with a Dramaturg, and though some of these have worked, most of them have not.

There was an odd moment at the beginning of the first rehearsal when Ms. Rosenberg (not pictured) came onstage and thanked the director, David Robinson, for being there and how much we were all going to enjoy working with him and how "Norma" was greatly anticipated by San Francisco audiences.

The only problem was that David Robinson, wearing a nametag, was a fellow supernumerary and JAMES Robinson, the director was sitting on a chair downstage while she was making this announcement. It was a major brain fart on her part, and I heard the male chorus behind me muttering, "she doesn't even know who she's hired."

On the second night we rehearsed a scene where 17 Celtic Warriors come onstage in loincloths with their pointed sticks and Sizzler Steakhouse salad bowls which are to be filled with mud. We were directed to sit all the way downstage in front of Oroveso and the men's chorus who sing a beautiful three minutes worth of music while the supernumeraries were directed to be "muscular, masculine, like a Greek frieze" as we mimed applying mud to each other's bodies as war paint in Celtic patterns.

My partner was none other than David Robinson and we tried our best not to get the giggles. "I want pecs painted on," he insisted.

One of my favorite fellow supers, John Janonis, a wild man at age 62, confessed that he was going to be the only Celtic Warrior with a pot belly. "Hey, I told them that I had a mature man's body."

Another one of my favorite supers, Lucas Rebston, got the plum role of a Roman soldier who is being murdered as the curtain goes up by bloodthirsty Celtic warriors, and then hung up against the wooden set. In the second scene, Pollione the tenor comes in with a half-dozen Roman soldiers, including me, and we take him down while Pollione sings to him. "Hey, I should have been dead four years ago from lymphoma," Lucas told me. "The role's not much of a stretch."

Katherine Braziliatis, who has been backstage for 26 years, is playing one of the five Druid Priestesses who flank Norma during her entrance aria, "Casta Diva," one of the most famous and difficult soprano arias in the repertory.

Unlike most of her fellow supernumeraries, including yours truly, Katherine's actually a great actress and a joy to watch onstage. Katherine and her four fellow priestesses were directed to pull out chunks of prop mistletoe from a tree stump and then mingle with the chorus, who take little bits of the plant from them while the diva continues singing "Casta Diva."

At some point, the chorus was directed to lay on the floor and sing their background music while "ritually" waving bits of mistletoe in the air.

This is either going to work or it's going to give the audience the giggles.

And you don't want the audience to be giggling during "Casta Diva." They should be holding their collective breath wondering how anything so beautiful can be sung so exquisitely. We'll see.


Anonymous said...

Asterix books give another spin to the roman-druid drama. I have two in french! if you'd like to borrow them.

The lying around on the floor looks an awful lot like a silly yoga class.


Anonymous said...

You make this 20 year old male with an aversion to culture want to go try out the opera. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

hey sfmike... we would like to invite you to speak on a panel at webzine 2005 september 24th and 25th in san francisco. could you contact me before monday?

Anonymous said...

mikee....very nice post ..and really coool set, I must say...
you need to checj out asterix, ces't tres bon....

"a little village surrounded by romans everywhere...."
it resonates to something, doesn't it?