Robert Wilson’s new Norma for Zurich Opera brings Bellini’s tragedia lirica in due atti into the cyber age. It’s a prime example of his abstractionist, formal theatre: a succession of scenes in front of a horizon, lit by constantly changing colours illustrating the subtle mood-shifts in Bellini’s music. This choreographed lighting, by Wilson assisted by A.J. Weissbar, developed in scenes of overwhelming beauty, with the characters moving in slow motion from one statue-like pose to the next. Their silhouettes made an effect reminiscent of Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune, though without the reference to ancient Greece; they were dressed by Moidele Bickel in imperial robes, like actors in Kabuki theatre.
There was another Nijinsky-like reference when Paolo Carignani and the orchestra conjure up the martial sounds of the sinfonia; on the drop curtain there appeared a huge white circle surrounded by a pale shadow (the moon?), while Norma walked in measured steps, her arms folded or diagonal, like branches on a tree, from stage left to right and back again. Was it inspired by paintings from Nijinsky’s collection, recently exhibited in Hamburg, which heralded the abstraction later pursued by Kandinsky and other artists? Five frieze-like panels, each with eight eyes, descended from the flies while the warriors congregated for Oroveso’s ‘Ite sol colle, o Druidi’. Then Wilson veered away from the Nijinsky references, throwing in Celtic motifs and animals mimed by actors.
He kept the stage clear, with some abstract sculptures hanging in mid air, for the music to unfold. Singers in frozen poses delivered their cantilenas and coloratura like automatons. These tableaux vivants suited Bellini’s music perfectly, reflecting its haunting beauty and elegance. Movement was all in slow motion; people never touched, but moved in symmetry. Some will have found it mannered, but it was hard to resist this overwhelming beauty. Carignani followed the ebb and flow of Bellini’s vocal line minutely, lending it a natural, if somewhat cool and lean elegance. There are other ways of approaching it—the high-octane approach, for instance—but here there was no lack of excitement. It suited Elena Mosuc’s ladylike Norma; she was the perfect anti-Callas Norma, with exquisite fioriture and an immaculate, seamless line. Her phrases were fashioned as if from expensive Carrera marble, with a high F that shone in lustrous splendour. It contrasted well with the more down-to-earth mezzo of Michelle Breedt as Adalgisa, finely focused in their duets, her voice healthy, flexible and vivid. She’s not of the calibre of Stignani, but she made a good counterpart to Mosuc’s ethereal utterances. Roberto Arricone was a workaday Pollione, belting his phrases out with vigour but little subtlety, let alone ‘tenerezza’, while Giorgio Giuseppini was impressive in his solidity and depth as Oroveso.
It was not my ultimate Norma experience, but it was very different from others that I’ve encountered over the last six decades. I don’t remember a single one seducing me as this did, with its dazzling display of scenic beauty.