There was a vibrant reaction to Bellini's Norma at the Th_ê¢tre du Chê¢telet Monday night, January 18. There were both hearty bravos and lively booing at the curtain for this standard of the repertory which, oddly, has not been seen in Paris for decades.
Both the sound of the music and the edgy production marched in a sharply different direction that what many in the audience have been accustomed to. The production did away with the faux bronze breastplates and helmets of the Romans and the burlap and sandals of the Druids. Pollione, the Roman proconsul, who fathered two love children with the title character, was shirtless but bronze all over, including his hair. Norma, here with dark eyeshadow, is the chief priestess and by tradition a virgin, early on learns he has now been bedding her best friend, Adalgesia. At the final scene, Norma and Pollione, recovering their original feelings but with destinies totally compromised, are consumed by fire.
But the "concept" production of Peter Mussbach, a noted stage director who was, until recently, director of the Staatsoper in Berlin, has placed all the action in a madhouse. This has occurred to many of his contemporaries when they read the librettos of opera they are about to stage. In fact, it has recently become something of a "concept production" clich_, however well handled. Here, the stage action, complete with a giant ball to be rolled around, has been carefully choreographed and the action shifts with each of the musical set pieces the composer is so fond of within his scenes. The love children were made of straw. A plaster white horse appears from time to time and ridden by the Pollione and Norma. From the ladies' caressing of its flanks it evokes phallic symbolism and, at the opera's end, bursts into flames. At the curtain, many in the audience did not miss the traditional sets and found the action on stage complemented the music. Others vociferously objected.
It was an impressive evening for the voice. The young American soprano of Romanian extraction, Lina Tetriani, has all the notes - already most of the way there in the role. But most great Norma's have waited toward the end of their careers to tackle the role. In addition to the terrifying technical demands, it demands a strong and commanding personality and that confidence is usually reserved for established divas. I would, nevertheless, recommend keeping track of this talented singer.
Also talented was the Pollione, tenor Nikolai Shukoff. His voice, as bronze as his skin tone here, easily met the demands of the role and is also one to watch. Baritone Nicolas Test_ had a seasonal malady and mimed his Oroveso which was splendidly sung on the side by Wojtek Smilek. The standout performance was by Swedish soprano Paulina Pfeiffer with a voice of distinctive amplitude and warmth. The theater's chorus, almost always on stage, had the double task of performing the twitching and lurching of the inmates while singing the important choruses and were cheered deservedly at the end.
Jean-Christophe Spinozi and his historically-informed band, Ensemble Matheus, also divided the audience. Some thought the sounds, meant to reconstruct the sounds of the orchestra of Bellini's time, was dry and without the warmth of modern orchestras on recordings. Others, perhaps more accustomed to "historically informed" orchestra sounds, found Spinozi's conducting spry, clear and dramatically on point. He is one of the seemingly endless stream of French conducting stars emerging from the thriving "historically informed" baroque movement - some who are moving into more modern repertoire.
With first season of the more conservative management of the Opera National de Paris producing few sparks and the Opera-Comique focusing on the rediscovery of French musical treasures, it is a surprise to find the Th_ê¢tre du Chê¢telet presenting such an envelope-pushing evening. In the last few years, Chê¢telet has been a concentration on popular musical theater like Bernstein's West Side Story and the work immediately following this Norma, Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
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All photos by Marie-Noelle Robert.