The Making of Norma: Daughter of Oroveso

Vincenzo Bellini first saw the tragedy Norma by the playwright Alexandre Souret produced on a Parisian stage in 1831. Fascinated by the drama, Bellini soon employed it as the subject of his own opera by the same name, which he completed within three months of the theatrical performance. The romantic character of the work, brought to life by the music of Bellini, garnered the composer a true success.

In Warsaw, the original premiere of Norma took place in 1843 in the original Italian, followed by a production in 1845 with the text set in Polish. Since then, the opera has been respected for its unique role in the repertoire. However, the actual production of the opera is a task far from frequent, as the level of difficulty for the vocalists demands excellent vocal training and technique. The complex arias and ensembles require from the singer a remarkable range and continuity of phrase, both in lyrical moments as in coloratura passages.

The style of Norma resembles that of the great historical works, and in fact it planted the seeds for a trend of monumental drama set to music. The plot itself takes place in pagan times, 50 BC, in a Druid community of Gaul, then occupied by the Romans. Norma is a high priestess of the Druids, but she is secretly in love with the enemy Pollione, the Roman Proconsul, and has borne him two children. The fickle Roman, however, has now proclaimed his love for another, Adalgisa, a virgin of the temple. The two women, unaware of Pollione’s unfaithfulness, are close friends. The plot is further complicated by the imminent onset of war, incited by the Gallic warriors to free the Druids from Roman oppression. The chief of the anxious Gauls is Norma’s father, the Archdruid Oroveso.

Norma does not want war, prophesying the great tragedies battle will bring and torn by her own inner conflict. She soon learns, however, of Pollione’s new passion for Adalgisa, and furthermore that he is soon to leave this land, recalled to Rome and replaced by a new, even more ruthless Proconsul.

At this Norma incites the battle cry, “War and revenge.” Pollione is brought into the sacred Druid temple, having been captured in the cloister of novice priestesses. The penalty for his intrusion is death. Two victims are burned at the stake – Pollione and Norma, determined to die with her beloved.

Thus is presented the plot of the opera most concisely. Differences in the interpretation of  Norma now arise as proposed by Dorota Sobieska, having at their heart a philosophical and Christian message. Her Norma does not have
the character, as is so often presented, of a demonic woman. Rather, she is one who, despite having been hurt, cheated, and abandoned, knows to forgive and finds in her heart emotions of a higher sphere. In the end, her actions are driven by compassion and self-sacrifice. The sincerity of her love helps her deal with unexpected roadblocks in the path of life. She dies together with Pollione on the pyre, but she makes this decision consciously. Did she then lose the battle? Or perhaps her decision was indeed victorious. Before her death she confides her children to the care of her friend Clotilde and her father, who forgives her.

Following the third and final performance of Norma, I had the opportunity to speak with Dorota Sobieska herself, already occupied by the preparation of upcoming artistic programs to celebrate Christmas, and plans for the operetta Die Fledermaus, to be produced by Opera Circle in the near future.

I asked Dorota how she reconciled her dual role in this production: that of both stage director and the leading soloist in a work in which she is constantly singing. I learned that Norma was the result of a year of preparation. She set in her imagination various scenes, drawing on images that were unfinished or incomplete, but functional through a symbolic rather than realistic realm, thus arousing the imagination of the audience members. Modest props and scenic movement, such as a crescent moon, the mystical procession of Druid priestesses, the ring of the gong announcing battle, simple costumes all served as a basis for the spectator onto which he or she could add or adapt in accordance to their own individual imagination. In this symbolism, Dorota followed suit with the masters of Romanticism by having the unfinished symbol create a mysterious aura, leading to a trance of deeper thought. Among the sources of inspiration to this approach were other Romantic works, including those of Polish romanticism, such as Dziady of Adam Mickiewicz.

Opera Circle Ray Liddle, baritone, here in the role of Oroveso and as always displaying fine musicianship and a wonderful presence; Amy Scheetz, mezzo-soprano, who sang Adalgisa much to the delight of the audience; Laura Avdey, mezzo-soprano, in her Opera Circle solo debut as a warm-hearted Clotilde; and Matthew Peña, tenor, deserving commendation for the episodic role of Flavio. I believe the immense amount of work invested in the prepation of the chorus is too worthy a note of praise. I further recommend to you, dear readers, the review of Norma by Donald Rosenberg, which appeared in the Plain Dealer on December 3 of this year.

We have a reason to be proud. Our family of polish artists – Dorota, Jacek, and Wanda – attain their aesthetic goals one step at a time. The audience for each consecutive production grows, including the group of dedicated opera lovers, those who even come to see the same production several times.

I have already mentioned the three artists. In Norma, however, all five of the Sobieski clan took their place on stage. For her share, Ola dutifully sang soprano in the choir. Only Julian did not need to learn his role. He was the son of Norma, his mother.

Dr. Elżbieta H. Ulanowska
Translated by Wanda Sobieska

Forum, 1/2003