March 06, 2019

NORMA: Bel Canto’s Answer to Game of Thrones

Audiences have thrilled to Bellini’s Norma as, above all, a showcase for great singing for its entire 185-year history. Bellini, along with Rossini and Donizetti, form the triumvirate of giants of the bel canto repertoire. In the entire history of opera, Bellini remains unsurpassed in creating exquisite melodies in which superb voices can truly rejoice. Norma invariably demands stupendously gifted artists, who boast both the elegance and the bravura technique to do justice to this exceptionally challenging music.

In recent years, Norma has attracted directors with the sensitivity and imagination to unite the vocal splendor of the piece with an enthralling  theatricality. One of those directors is Kevin Newbury, whose production of another bel canto masterpiece, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, marked his company debut and was a highlight of Lyric’s 2014/15 season.  (And speaking of bel canto, Newbury staged the sensational world premiere last season of Jimmy Lopez’s opera Bel Canto, based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel. Bel Canto: The Opera, taped at Lyric will be shown nationally on PBS on Friday, January 13. Check local listings for more detail.)

In describing where he and his production team began in thinking about Norma, Newbury mentions first “timeless fantasy elements” and “wonderful rituals from the Iron Age. With Game of Thrones and all the fantasy novels, TV shows, and films so in vogue now, I think this production will resonate with people who like fantasies set in the distant past. Norma is potentially a visually sumptuous and a dramatically interesting piece that really comes alive in this approach.” 

A scene from Norma

Newbury and his designers, David Korins (sets), Jessica Jahn (costumes), and Duane Schuler (lighting), found all sorts of inspiration in Druid rituals and folklore. “For example,” comments Newbury, “they were always building beautiful effigies and burning them in rituals. They’d take down trees in the forests outside to bring them in and turn them into a kind of Iron Age war machine. We looked at the vacillation between outside and inside, and infiltrating the armory where they make those elements of war. We carry that throughout the whole show.”

Kevin Newbury

Newbury is riveted by this piece, and he’s also thrilled that the production is coming to Lyric in late January and February. “First of all, it stars Sondra Radvanovsky, one of the finest singing actresses in the world, with an incredibly gifted supporting cast. The story itself is very rich, dealing with sacrifice, fidelity, parenthood, and relationships. It’s a very accessible story with big emotions.” Norma is a joy for the bel canto aficionado, and for the newbie, declares Newbury, “I think it’s a fantastic first opera!”

New Lyric Opera coproduction of Bellini’s Norma generously made possible by

Julie and Roger Baskes

Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation

Estate of Venrice R. Palmer

Coproduction with San Francisco Opera, Canadian Opera Company, and Gran Teatre del Liceu.

Photos: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera, Todd Rosenberg