When American politicians get angry about an issue, whether it's bailing out the banks or same-sex marriage, they like to say that we're heading down the road that led to fall of Rome. However much those assertions rankle historians, we can't, as the illuminating classicist Mary Beard likes to say, get rid of ancient Rome.
What does opera have to say about the matter? It just so happens that two marvelous operas that concern the Roman Empire hit local stages last weekend. Los Angeles Opera unveiled a new production of Bellini's "Norma," one of the wonders of the bel canto repertory. In a more modest setting, the USC opera program mounted Mozart's unconscionably neglected final opera, "La Clemenza di Tito."
When it comes to historical veracity, opera has an incomparable capacity for embracing the outlandish, and "Norma" typically fits that bill. A druid priestess who avidly practices human sacrifice sings music of sublime beauty. The second part of that sentence is all anyone cares about. A conquering Roman proconsul who seduces the willingly besotted priestess (rather than rape or arrest or slaughter her) is the callous one. But can he belt out high notes? That's what we need to know.
L.A. Opera boasts an exceptionally strong cast vocally. A sturdy, powerful soprano with exacting control, Angela Meade offers a textbook example of how to handle every nuance of Bellini's exquisite melodic writing for his title character.
As Norma's acolyte, Adalgisa, Jamie Barton made her L.A. Opera debut at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday night by providing an indelible demonstration of why the young mezzo-soprano has become the latest darling of the American opera scene. Her sound is the darkly creamy lager that poured forth from altos of yore. Yet she displays the craft of a superior modern singer, which includes accuracy of intonation, alertness to rhythm and fine articulation.
The men in "Norma" normally matter little. But tenor Russell Thomas' Pollione, who casts off Norma for the younger Adalgisa, presents an unusually believable combination of haughty authority and punishing vulnerability. Morris Robinson, an imposing Oroviso (the head of the druids), is a booming bass whom you cannot ignore.
This is pretty much an all-American "Norma." James Conlon conducts, forcefully. The director, Anne Bogart, and the choreographer, Barney O'Hanlon, were responsible last month for the brilliantly vibrant and original production of Julia Wolfe's "Steel Hammer," an ode to and examination of the social background of the John Henry ballad.
There was hope Bogart might wield a similarly steely hammer on "Norma." In a short director's note in the program, she writes that "Norma," which takes place in 50 BC during Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul, has greater potential for social commentary than normally noticed.
She sees this as the conflict of the matriarchal society of the druids and the patriarchal one of the Romans. The men are hotheaded; Norma's plea is for patience. "Ultimately," Bogart concludes, "the hope for any civilization is restraint, which requires character and self-knowledge."
Suddenly "Norma" can seem eerily pertinent at the time of the Paris attacks. This is especially the case given that debate on the American political circuit about what is happening in latter-day Gaul is whether the proper response should be bellicosity or Bogart's and Bellini's concern for considered restraint.
Unfortunately, the production, originally created for Washington National Opera, is a missed opportunity. With the exception of Thomas' Pollione, these superb singers demonstrate little ability to create character on stage. Their every physical gesture is an opera cliché, the problematic flip side of modern operatic vocal training.
Neil Patel's set could serve as a nice wooden deck on a new McMansion in Venice Beach. There is a big pit, good for hanging out or barbecue (in this case of druid sacrifice). The costumes are a vague mishmash of old and new, ill-suited toward encouraging physically awkward singers into conveying place or purpose. Ditto the self-conscious dancing.
Go, anyway, for the singing. The greatest musical glory of "Norma" is found in the duets between Norma and Adalgisa, and the Meade-Barton amalgam is a sound so stunning that in the audience Saturday there were laughs of pure pleasure. In "SPQR," Beard's magisterial new history, the pleasure principle looms as a large part of the Roman character and perhaps one of the reasons for its continual allure. In that sense, anyway, L.A. Opera is true to history.
Ancient Rome was, of course, also a violent society. A century after Caesar, a seemingly heartless youth succeeded his father, the villainous Vitellius, as emperor. But now imagine Korea's current supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, as the soul of compassion and self-sacrifice for the good of his country. That was Titus.
Mozart's opera may be ignored because it was an opera seria, the already archaic formal style of tragic opera. Still, "Tito," like "Norma," contains glorious vocal writing. Moreover, it finds in ancient Rome a surprisingly probing and conclusive model for moral rectitude. USC's student performance did it justice in a simple but effective production.
There were two casts, and the one I saw at the final performance Sunday afternoon in Bing Theatre included Ukrainian soprano Yelena Dyachek, who took first place in the Western region finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions earlier this month. Tall and stately with an enormous voice and commanding stage presence, she was magnificent as the imperious Vitellia (and may someday be a magnificent Norma). The interaction between tenor Hui Jin's Titus and mezzo-soprano Katie Beck's Sesto delved deep into the issues of justice.
As Beard reminds us, Rome didn't fall overnight. One of opera's better jobs is to remind us why.