This weekend, the Dallas Opera closes its 2016-17 season with Vincenzo Bellini’s exceptionally beautiful opera Norma (1831), the definitive representative of the Bel Canto era. It opens Friday night at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House and runs through May 7, the final week of which will coincide with the Opera America conference in Dallas (which has even more Dallas Opera programming).
It seemed like a great time to talk to the Dallas Opera’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume about the work and its challenges.
Villaume, who is conducting Norma, has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and, specifically, opera. But it’s never intimidating talking to him on the subject. He immediately puts the interviewer at ease and he doesn’t wear his erudition on his sleeve. When he comes up with some obscure factoid that is surprisingly germane to the subject, he delivers it casually and without pretense. Rather than interviewing the Great Maestro, as so often happens with conductors, talking with Villaume is just a simple conversation—the sort you might enjoy with a friend over lunch.
Norma is set during the Roman occupation of Gaul in 50 B.C. Mix that with a passionate love triangle, personal betrayal, and impending revolution, and you have a story of operatic proportions. Nic Muni directs the Dallas Opera production.
The work is famous as one of the most beautiful operas in the repertoire. Its soaring melodies, such as the soprano aria “Casta Diva,” are sublime. There are also several versions of the opera.
“It is always interesting to see an edition that tries to repair the errors in a score and return it to the original version,” Villaume says. “Cecilia Bartoli guided a revised score for her performances of the opera in 2010 and then there is Bärenreiter’s urtext edition. We are doing what is called the ‘standard version.’ ”
An aside: Bärenreiter is a music publisher that does extensive musicological research with the goal of publishing a score that is faithful to the historical documents. They sift through the various published scores, comparing them to whatever they can dig up of the composer’s original autograph scores. “Urtext” refers to music or any other text that has been returned to its original version by musicologists digging through dusty libraries for a composer’s autograph version.
“Very often a critical edition gets rid of mistakes. For the most part, these are not big errors,” Villaume says. “It is a crescendo here, omitted staccato markings and different phrasing. Occasionally, they end up importing new errors.”
“I usually conduct from the Recordi score but I have conducted from other editions,” he adds. “These things need to be decided by the conductor long before rehearsals start. What small differences remain can be worked out in rehearsal. For example, the second verse of the Adalgisa/Norma duet is often omitted, but we are doing both. Also, this aria has been transposed down a step in the past, depending on the singer. We are doing it in the original key.”
So, if Norma is such a magnificent opera, why is it not produced more?
“Well, there are many reasons,” Villaume says. “The most important one is that it is hard to cast. It requires the best singers, with perfect technique, great breath control and a beautiful sound that is even from top to bottom. The role of Norma has been marked for modern audiences by Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé, and these performances are still available on CDs.”
Because of the different editions, various voices have been used.
“The two leading female roles, [Druid priestesses] Norma and Adalgisa, have been sung by many kinds of singers. Adalgisa is typically sung by a mezzo and Norma by a soprano,” he says. “But these roles are occasionally sung by just the opposite combination. We are doing the original concept and have cast two sopranos in the two roles.”
In this production, South African soprano Elza van den Heever plays Norma and soprano Marina Costa-Jackson is Adalgisa.
The tenor role of Pollione, the Roman proconsul, is also difficult to cast. Tenors as different as Jon Vickers, Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo, and the more lyric tenor, John Alexander, have all had success in the role. Here, tenor Yonghoon Lee plays Pollione.
“A conductor has to have the overall structure of the opera always in your mind,” Villaume says. “Everything fits together perfectly in Norma, and it needs to be performed that way. In addition, you have to help the singers by not taking excessive rubato, so as to help the singers pace their voice. You also have to understand the subtext of what is going on—what emotions and situations are there, but not overtly expressed.”
For all of the above reasons, this Bel Canto treasure is one of the tougher works to stage successfully—but it’s worth the effort.
“The rewards of Norma are wonderful with its stunningly beautiful music and tense dramatic situations: the building blocks of a successful opera,” he adds. “All the difficulties of putting together a fine production, like this one, comes with great rewards.”