Continuing my review of Bellini’s great opera “Norma”, which commenced the Met Opera’s Live in HD season this past Saturday. It is time to talk about the tenor, Roman Proconsul Pollione, here sung by Joseph Calleja, who is of Maltese citizenship. Calleja is perfect as Pollione, who is simultaneously the hero and the villain of the piece. I don’t know exactly what Maltese are (Spanish? Italian?), but Calleja exudes the type of hairy Italian machismo that could realistically capture the heart of an innocent Druid maiden.
A few seasons back, I saw Calleja do “Hoffmann”, and he was just a fill-in because the original tenor had to bow out, for some reason. On the surface, Calleja doesn’t look much like a Hoffmann, but I recall that he did a superb job. Especially as the older, more jaded Hoffmann seeking pleasures of the flesh in Venice.
Here, Pollione is a powerful and cruel Roman occupier, he is fairly one-dimensional, but at the very end of the story reveals more complexity than we had expected from him. In the backstory: Pollione has seduced the Druid High Priestess Norma. See, Pollione has a habit of sneaking into the Druids holy oak glade, a sacred place where he is not supposed to be, and the punishment for unbelievers violating that sacred grove is, of course, death by pyre-burning. Why does Pollione sneak into the glade just about every night? Well, apparently this virile Italian has a taste for sweet sweet Druid-lady flesh. After he seduces Norma, she bears him two children, and they become a sort of secret family. As the amazing elevator-set-change device revealed, Norma, her children, and their nanny Clotilde live in an underground hut, directly beneath the roots of the Irminsul Oak Stump. There they hide from prying eyes of society, which would condemn her tryst with Pollione, not to mention her bastard offspring.
What About the Young Persons?
Which brings us back to the issue of Norma’s children and why she contemplates infanticizing them. As Mr. Podsnap (“Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens) kept reminding us, it’s all about the “young person” and his or her future in our society.
Well, the children ARE the future, as Whitney Houston reminded us. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that all children HAVE a future. As my extensive research into infanticide has revealed, there are sometimes actually valid reasons to kill your kids. For example, some mothers can’t raise them, for whatever reason, and simply don’t know who is going to raise them, and feel that the kids are better off dead than in the foster system. Which may be the case, realistically, but PLEASE MOMS! — don’t do it, you never know, maybe they will have a great life in the end despite all the odds. There is always hope!
In Norma’s case, the main issue is the legality of her children. In ancient times, just as today, if a child does not carry a piece of paper clarifying his status within his society, then all kinds of bad things can happen to him. Norma is certain that her two boys, the illegitimate spawn of a hated Roman occupier, will not be accepted into Gaelic society — this is why she hides them underground. Originally maybe she had some hope that Pollione would marry her, legitimize their children, and take them all to Rome. But that hope has faded, since Pollione has cooled to her.
Her only remaining option is to have Pollione take the children to Rome by himself. But then horrors await them: She sees in her mind that Pollione will marry, the stepmother will mistreat his bastards, even sell them into slavery. This is why she has come almost to the point of going at them with the hatchet — for their own good.
“I took the High C”
No doubt Norma is re-running all these dilemmas through her mind as she sings her famous cavatina to the Moon Goddess.
Barely has she finished, and the Druid warriors dispersed, when who should suddenly appear, bounding into the grove, than Pollione himself, to confront Norma, whom he no longer loves. He declaims to her that he loves another woman, thus continuing to dash all her hopes. See, she’s still into him, despite everything. Italian men have that kind of power over women.
Once again, Bellini has no mercy on his singers: Right out of the gate the Tenor has to belt out the aria Meco all’altar di Venere, with its infamous High-C. The High-C is considered the Holy Grail for the heroic tenor. And Callejo had to do it with no warm-up! In close-ups one could see the focus on Calleja’s face as he enunciated each syllable and carefully controlled his breathing.
During the intermission, Calleja bounded off the stage and bragged to hostess Susanna Philips: “I took the High C!”
Well, almost. To my ears it sounded at least a quarter-note flat. But then, I don’t have perfect pitch, so I can’t be sure. In any case, Calleja himself was happy with it. And after that first aria, he noticeably relaxed, melded into the role, and got better and better as the story progressed.
[to be continued]