During intermission at the Dallas Opera‘s opening night of Norma, one of my seat-neighbors turned to me and said, “My only complain about this production is the title — ‘Norma’ just seems like a name out-of-place in the ancient world.” “Yeah,” I said. “How about The Real Housewives of Gaul.” She chuckled, not because she was being nice, but because it’s true. Norma (sung by soprano Elza van den Heever) is a Druid high priestess in Roman-occupied France who has been carrying on an affair with the Roman overlord Pollione (tenor Yonghoon Lee), though he pledges himself to the virginal Adalgisa (Marina Costa-Jackson). When the women compare notes, and both realize that Pollione is both father to Norma’s children and Adalgisa’s betrothed. You can hear the collective grumble in the audience as they expect one of the women to up-end a table and sing the newly-discovered aria “Oh no she betta don’t!” as Maury Povich reveals who, in fact, is the real baby daddy.
But, like Debbie and Liz, Norma and Adalgisa don’t take out the betrayal on each other, but on the man who done them wrong. Suddenly, it’s less Teresa Giudice and more Witches of Eastwick.
Norma isn’t a comedy, but it does has some stirring melodrama that feels as real and current as realiTV. It’s humanity is what anchors it. But its music is what makes it soar. Bellini’s gift for bel canto is that even the heels and low-register male voices, as well as the women, simply delight your ears with their powerful and lovely singing. They could be referring to the fishmonger’s wife cleaning out the toilet, and you’d roll your eyes in ecstasy.
The production is as gorgeous to look at as it is to listen to. John Conklin’s protean set, beautifully lit by Thomas C. Hace so that it literally transforms the locale and the mood without moving a stick of furniture, evokes all the passion of the story, as well as its danger, with enviable ease. There’s also a whiff of lesbian attraction between Norma and Adalgisa, which complicates and illuminates the plot and character development. It;s too bad the show wasn’t a sell-out on opening night — an opera this good deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
At the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. April 26, 29 and May 7.