Norma: look back in irony
If you want one, and only one, reason to defend the on-going study of Classics - I saw it last night. OK, it might seem on the elite side of the equation. But I went to see Bellini's Norma at Covent Garden. It is an opera that is incomprehensibe unless you see the ways it parodies Euripides' Medea. There the scorned wife of Jason, the witch Medea, sends his new partner a deadly poisoned dress as a wedding gift, and kills the children she had with Jason, who himself escapes with his life (while Medea is transported heavenwards).
In Norma, the young Druid activist priestess (Norma) in Gaul under Roman occupation has children by the Roman proconsul (Pollio), who then falls for another Gallic woman and intends to scarper with her to Rome. Sounds familiar? Yes, but in this case the scorned woman does not actually kill the kids (despite a long dalliance with a knife, and last night with a clinical bit of plastic to cope with their bodies); she does not send a deadly dress to the new wife (in fact they are rather bonded); and in the final scene both Jason and Medea (Pollio and Norma) die. Neither escape.
I had some problems with the production last night. The idea that the Druids has been turned into proto-Catholics, with some Nazis thrown in, was awkward for the original Druids v Romans plot (weren't the Romans the Nazis?). And that was especially so when, bizarrely, the friend and confidant of Pollio, Norma/Medea's lover, who was supposed to be a Roman, was dressed as a Christian (aka Druid). Who was on which side here?
I should say that the husband liked the mad mixture and the disruption of certainty; wasnt that the point, he said? Maybe.
I am not so sure. But, apart from the wonderful singing (and it really was), the sense of classical parody was brilliant. There was a brilliant scene in which Norma's children, not in this version about to be killed, bounced around what looked like a suburban flat, complete with sofas, tv, and kids' wheelie toys. Some early critics have wondered what on earth this bit of suburbia is doing in the whole opera. But they have missed the resonant point. This is exactly how the Medea children are regularly played (notably in the NT Helen McCrory production) -- we are being told to think Medea.
Which I did... and I also enjoyed reconnecting with my ex-student at KCL, Alex Beard, no relation, now CEO of the Royal Opera House. We'd be the first to agree that he was pretty feckless back then (I probably was too). But 35 years on, we can admire each other. And it is a telling indication of how, in judging education (anther of my concerns today), we need always to think of long term trajectories rather than short term results. I am proud to have taught ( mmm ?) Alex, and pleased we can now look back in irony.