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10 april 2020

Some famous operas have plots invented by their librettists: Aida, Der Rosenkavalier. Others have notable literary or dramatic sources, whether classical, Shakespearean, or modern. Still others are near-instant adaptations of otherwise ephemeral works of their day. When Felice Romani wrote the libretto of Norma, which became Vincenzo Bellini's most enduring opera, he turned to a recent play by Alexandre Soumet – a poet who is remembered now as no more than a footnote to Bellini.

Frankly, Norma isn't a very good play. It's a dull echo, in language and theme, of French neoclassical drama, set during a conflict between Druids and Romans at some largely-invented epoch of antiquity. Not that Alexandre Soumet was a hack playwright. Rather the reverse: Soumet was a member of the Académie Française, an epic poet, and the author of other plays with titles like Clytemnestre and Saül. He could scan an alexandrine like nobody's business, but, at least in Norma, his language is lifeless.

Soumet's title character, Norma, is a minor-league Medea. She's playing a dangerous double game: she is the spiritual leader of the Druids, even entrusted with their sacred mistletoe; but at the same time, she is secret lover and twice baby-momma to a blockhead of a Roman legionnaire named Pollion.

This situation might have still worked out, given some couples therapy, if Pollion hadn't fallen for a younger and more vestal Druid named Adalgise. If one Druid girlfriend is a problem, Pollion's friend Flavius reminds him, getting into a love triangle with the flower of Druid femininity is an exponentially greater problem.

But whoever listens to their confidant(e)? Most of the plot of both play and opera involves the working-out of this love triangle, and the threat of infanticide that hovers over the children of Norma and Pollione's relationship. At the end of Soumet's play, Norma casts herself daftly into an abyss along with one of the kids. In Bellini's opera, the kids survive, but Norma and Pollione themselves, after much noble deference and self-abnegation, decide to undergo death together for violating some sort of Druidic taboo.

I am not really sure if Soumet had much in mind beyond judicious parallelism of expression when he drafted this play. The Druids are sort of Gallic, and this being 1831 and the era of much revolutionary and Romantic fervor in France, their struggles toward nationhood may parallel something going on in contemporary French politics. But it is not interesting enough to try to figure out what.

Romani and Bellini were probably even less interested in any messages the script contained. They saw characters, hopelessly at odds, who spend much of the time keyed up to very high emotive levels. For opera, this is a can't-miss situation. Provided the composer rises to the challenge; and the score of Norma is famously, relentlessly, gorgeous. It's technically difficult, virtuoso material that at the same time delivers great direct emotional appeal: not an easy combination to bring off, but a marvelous experience when it happens.

I watched Norma recently in a production recorded in 2006 at the Munich Staatsoper. The director, Jürgen Rose, opted for a haphazard scheme. The Romans dressed like banana-republic soldiers, complete with assault rifles. The Druids, for their part, were stuck in fairyland, with arcane blue tattoos on their palms and sinister dirks which they concealed in handy stones, as is the wont of mythical Celts. But then later the Druids showed up in their barbarian robes, waving pikes, but wearing ill-fitting balaclavas and brandishing their own automatic weapons! I sense a certain what-the-hellness about the concept here.

The star of the show was the great soprano Edita Gruberova, in her last years as prima donna at Munich. Gruberova was 59 at the time – younger than I am now, so not all that old by the calendar, I should note. But pretty old to be racing around stage carrying the enormous burden of the role of Norma. At 59, Gruberova was athletic, both physically and vocally. If she didn't look the part … a high percentage of opera performers don't. From the cheap seats, you can rarely tell if they don't. I found Gruberova to be pretty compelling.

Soumet, Alexandre. Norma. Paris: Barba, 1831.