Monday, January 25, 2010

Mussbach gives an intelligent new look to Norma at the Théâtre du Châtelet

The second viewing of Mussbach's production of  Norma in Châtelet is far more revelatory than the first one. The effect of surprise is now mostly gone and you start tackling deeper the director's ideas. Since being analytic is my job, it's normal that this side of me eventually defines my interaction with this production.

I am not really a fan of this opera, although I understand how "revolutionary" it was at the time of its creation; when opera was in the claws of belcanto codes, obliging the composers to come up with several cabalettas and culminate every emotion with compulsory soprano arias, regardless of the storyline or the theatrical language. Theater had clearly a different definition and purpose at that time. The aspects which mattered the most were the naively (grotesquely?) costumed singers and the arias they sang.
In spite of what we may think today, Norma in fact broke those rules which is why it wasn't an instant success - only to further magnify Bellini's acute case of paranoia. OK, it took only four shows to grow and become huge with La Scala crowd, but back in 1830's this was a ginormous surprise.

For the time of its creation the libretto for this opera was innovative and brought more theatrical elements to the belcanto soup. Nowadays, however, this libretto is too naive, too obsolete, too "crossover" [it was built on Medea  but to transform it to a crowd-pleaser,  Rome and pagan rituals had to be included, thus a tag "crossover"].

Let's face it: today, Norma is a definition of the shabby-type opera shows, pleasing the crowd of old peeps who refuse any change in opera, in theater or -for that matter-  in life (how is that for living in denial?!). Standard productions of Norma neglect the theatrical expressions and any director trying to bring this opera to life has to cope with two major problems: a poor libretto, and the crowd who obstinately refuse any spin to the story or its slight adaptation to make it more resonant with the 21st century. So we're usually stuck with yet another 'vision' of the troubled priestess wrapped in drapes, moving slowly through the wood of oak trees, behaving solemnly, with all the drama reduced to her singing accompanied with some hand-flapping to express either her rage or her despair... The singing is exaggerated but the belcanto fans nevertheless analyze it and fight on whether or not  any given soprano's sung her aria as if she was truly considering to kill her own children... I kid you not! To make the obstacle even higher, the singers are almost by definition considered as no-good, because they are to be compared with the greats of Callas, Sutherland and Caballe. If they try and bring something new to the role of Norma or Adalgisa, they are booed by the belcanto freaks and assassinated by the press too. In this configuration, most of the belcanto operas are bound to die...

This is why I found the Mussbach production so brilliant. He had a courage to break the standards, to push the envelope and give a completely new look to this opera. While the staging helps welcoming Norma to the 21st century, the orchestration is made on instruments similar to those used in 1831 when this opera was first time premiered. Also notable is the fact that there are no musical cuts at all. Spinosi clearly didn't want to be compared to the famous conductors of this genre. He instead wanted to give himself and his orchestra a chance to make a new sound - well, not really new, rather a sound non-standard for our times. Very clever and definitely successful a trick. Norma sounds familiar but different.

Lina Tetriani did her best to sing the tough role of Norma correctly, her physique helps the director's intentions and makes her very convincing in the title-role. While she was vocally a tad too tight on the night of the premiere, this Sunday (January 24, 2010) she was absolutely wonderful. Paulina Pfeiffer is steadily great - a Wagnerian soprano who sings Adalgisa is a luxury that not many theaters can afford. This is her first big role on a big stage and she definitely made the best of it.  Nicolai Schukoff was a little bit disappointing Pollione at the premiere (bad night happens to everyone). Today he was excellent, both scenically and vocally. Finally, Nicolas Testé --excellent as Oroveso-- is yet another name to retain.

Mussbach not only let this opera breath a new life but he also proposes the scenic solutions which are visually close to Magritte's paintings, suggesting the allegorical approach from the outset: the story of Norma is not what it seems. To me that was the only recipe for this production to work; the bare story of Norma with no extra depth/spin would be too tiring and overly far-fetched to suit any serious theater today.  So the sets are a balance/harmony of the "curved" and "squared", of our perception of private (sphere) embedded in public (squared) life. The tableaux alone provide the moments of sheer beauty to which the motion of the ball has the effect of breaking the metastable (static) harmony [Nothing is what it seems...]

Mussbach superposes to the story of Norma his own pleading for preservation of the intimate/private life/space which is progressively being reduced as the years go by. The world in which he puts Bellini's opera is a bluish (Magrittean)  bunker -- totally square-shaped and with huge walls. That confined world has gone mad but its inhabitants don't realize that - they don't care, they are self-sufficient, they even enjoy it. Only at the very end, when everything becomes "public", and begins to look life-threatening/suffocating they start jumping and hitting against the walls,  desperate to get out. Don't think Mussbach was naive: not everyone jumps against the wall! ;)

The huge sphere not only symbolizes the moon - it also plays the role of "Big Brother". It is moving and invades the privacy of the "Nation" (the Gauls in this opera) and in particular its exponents - let's call them "celebrities" (two priestesses and a Roman proconsul, in this opera). Norma is one of those celebrities. She's torn between her public image and the very womanish in her, the struggle that is irreversibly affected by her loss of privacy - by the full invasion of "public" over her "private" self.

The Nation in that (futuristic?) world enjoys following every move of Norma  - even the saucy details which are supposed to stay behind the closed doors [Isn't our time so strongly marked by all sorts of  reality shows?! Aren't they becoming more and more cruel?!]

The story of Norma is like of any other celebrity: her former boyfriend -a provocative 'golden boy'- is cheating on her, much to the amusement of the Nation.  He seduces Adalgisa who falls for his masculine, virile, sexual  sides - scenically represented by a horse which shows up in all crucial moments of the show, and is ultimately set on fire - the moment when Pollione dies together with Norma.

The moment in which Adalgisa confides to Norma is what I found the most illustrative of the Mussbach's approach. There is only a door and Norma enters the room [a space bounded by the light effects only] while the Nation is seated behind, patiently watching everything what's happening in front of them. Norma has her "high priestess coat" on and plays along as she's expected to -- it's her "public" self. But once she's moved by Adalgisa's confession she takes her coat off and her inner self ("private" sphere) resurfaces -- a woman who identifies with another woman and needs a friend. At that moment the door closes but the Nation is still finding a way to peep and follow the dialog/interaction between the two...

I could now go on and on, and recount the whole show, but what comes out as a clear message of Mussbach's production is that we too live in a finite box and it is shrinking. Our private space is being invaded and our personal freedom restrained. Even if we are spectators today, we are bound to become the protagonists of that global socio-show. The risks of annihilating our basic personal freedom is a permanent worry. The question is how to deal with it! Mussbach doesn't propose any solution to that question and he's right...

Conductor:  Jean-Christophe Spinosi
Director: Peter Mussbach  

With my apologies for such a long post, here are several photos I took today in Châtelet.

This is a beautiful curtain of the stage in Châtelet theater, painted by the French artist Gérard Garouste in 1989

High up touching the dome  is also this short recall of what we do in this theater

This is is the stage at the end when the big ball is restored to its place - during the 2nd act it cruely invaded the squared space...

Botelho, Schukoff, Tetriani, Pfeiffer, Testé and the chorus (behind)

Jean-Christophe Spinosi is happy. Much better night for him and his orchestra than on the night of la prima

Paulina Pfeiffer is our next big soprano to follow

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