16 September 2016 at 3.21pm | 3 Comments
Anyone thinking of staging an opera such as Bellini’s Norma has no choice but to accept the fact that this is a Romantic work with all the trimmings: a tragic love affair, Celtic forests, ancient temples, Druids, gloomy caverns, warriors, betrayal, death, the chilling sound of war drums, a violent and bloodthirsty deity, a mother prepared – Medea-like – to murder her own children, a father who curses his own daughter and (to round things off for good measure) a pyre in whose flames the lovers meet their death.
The temptation is, therefore, to indulge in excess; and at one point we were considering the possibility of using a war setting for this production. In the end, however, we decided to go in a different direction. Our decision was based on two deeply-held convictions, the first being that Norma is no stock character but a very human figure, whose doubts and problems have an entirely contemporary resonance. Our second was that religion plays a hugely significant, indeed all-pervasive, role in this opera.
Themes such as the fear of God, processions, ritual, celibacy, chastity and confession are woven from start to finish into the opera. Religion here is the glue that holds society together, an unconscious way of ordering the known world – but it is also the means to repress anyone who dares deviate from the ‘norm’. This is religion as fanaticism, an intolerant, unbending law, a terrible instrument of power. Norma (a subjugated daughter, betrayed lover and despairing mother) is doomed to be crushed by the norms (as imposed by society, religion and divine command).
In the end, a whole flood of issues influenced our thinking about this production: the dilemma faced by a woman who falls victim to the disparity between her personal situation and societal restrictions and conventions; the fact that these restrictions run counter to human instinct; the confusion between ideology and religion when religion and political power are one and the same thing; the reality of living with the fear of being punished, rejected, shunned by society; the horror of a ruling power that devours even its favourite offspring.
With all these ideas in mind, therefore, what we have tried to do is take a sounding of our own society and turn that into powerful onstage images that reflect (today’s) religion, (today’s) militarism and (today’s) political elite. We contrast these images with a portrait of an intimate, domestic, familial world, in the hope that this will enable contemporary audiences to identify as closely as possible with the tragedy that befalls Norma.
We have, in short, chosen to create a production that chimes with current social preoccupations. We’re talking about the deep-rooted forces that influence social and political thinking – forces that unite around symbols such as the cross. Not the cross of a religion based on the principle of loving one’s neighbour, however, but the cross that features so prominently on the flags and banners of the kind of fanatical, dogmatic, militarized groups which have begun to appear again in recent years.
Our main intention is to encourage people to stop and think about what has to be done if we want to overcome the contradictions of the present. Our Norma, therefore, is set against a realistic – even hyper-realistic – backdrop, but rather than this reflecting any specific existing reality, it serves to highlight the all-too-real fear of a return to the discrimination, fanaticism and violence that have cast their tragic shadow over Europe in the past.
This is an edited extract of Àlex Ollé’s article for The Royal Opera’s programme book for Norma, available during performances. Translation by Susannah Howe.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 26 September 2016. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list.
The production is a co-production with Opéra national de Paris and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE and The Tsukanov Family Foundation.