Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bellini's Norma

Symphony Space is a movie theatre turned into concert venue and neighborhood cultural center. Connected to it is the Thalia theater, long an art house, then closed for a few years but now resurrected and showing art films, usually in series, again. The fall Hi-def videos of Italian operas are being shown twice, first on a Sunday evening in the larger Symphony Space auditorium and then on a Wednesday in the Thalia. It's a community friendly arrangement. Last night I went to a showing of Norma at that Thalia space.

Since I began listening to the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts when I was about 14, I've heard all the repertory standards many, many times and listened to discussions about them. To me opera is more an auditory experience than a theatre experience. In fact the first few operas I saw overwhelmed me with spectacle and sound --one of the first was Turandot, -- no wonder I was overwhelmed.

Bel canto operas are almost by definition jewels and Norma certainly is. I feel a little low brow but I have to admit that I really am liking these hi-def productions that are suddenly springing up since the Met pioneered the idea a couple years ago. The sets are glorious, the camera work fine [a little self-conscious, I felt] and the sound is glorious in a small movie theatre, plus there's unobtrusive subtitles, and wonderful close-ups and the singers have become, more or less, actors. Silly as some stories are all the elements pull me in and I'm finding it a rich experience of music and story. My theatrically critical mind tries hard not to sabotage my enjoyment by disliking anachronisms -- like dreadlock wigs for Norma and Adelgisa.

But that is all prologue and just me explaining where I'm coming from and saying I had preconceived ideas when I went to the theatre last night. Little did I expect to discover what to me is the real story of the "Druids and Romans," as it's generally defined. This is actually a story about women's friendship, understanding and generosity to one another. No, there is no hint of lesbian love, they are rivals for Pollione and they fully understand how the other fell so hard for the skunk. [He deserves another "S" work.] I was amazed to realize that the emotional story is not about Pollione or about the Druids rebelling against the Roman occupation, but about a younger woman's great respect for the priestess and Norma's generosity toward Andelgisa. I've never heard this discussed, not even mentioned. Commentators tell the action but they all seem blind to that central part of the story as if taking it for granted that women would be so generous toward one another or as if it is simply not very significant. But the most powerful and beautiful duet in the opera, one of the most beautiful in all opera, is between the two women. Wake up guys! This goes way beyond being teammates in some ball game.

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