Norma Comes Complete With Druid Priestesses and Fiery Deaths

Fire, sacrifice and great music in Bellini's Norma.
Fire, sacrifice and great music in Bellini's Norma. Photo by Cory Weaver
Let's see. There's the title role of Norma, a Druid priestess who has broken her vows of chastity with a proconsul, part of an invading Roman force. She has two young sons by him who are hidden away.

Somehow her father, the high priest Oroveso (Peixin Chen), doesn't know about the romantic intrigue or its byproducts and calls for war against the Romans. Meanwhile, the Roman Pollione (Chad Shelton) tells Norma (Liudmyla Monastyrska) that he's tired of her and wants to move on to another priestess Adalgisa (Jamie Barton). When Adalgisa discovers she and Norma are in love with the same man, she rejects Pollione.

There's contemplated infanticide, a funeral pyre and rediscovered love to come in the two-act Bellini classic that clocks in at about ten minutes less than the three hour mark in this Houston Grand opera production with Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers conducting.

HGO Studio artist Yelena Dyachek who sings the role of Clotide, the maid, says this has been "The Year of the Maid for me," after also playing Nina in La traviata and Berta in The Barber of Seville.

Yelena Dyachek
Photo courtesy of HGO
In this case, Clotide is more of a confidante to her mistress. "She's the only one who knows Norma's secret. She knows that Norma has two children.  She knows of the affair and takes care of the children and she's more of the motherly figure to them than Norma."

Norma is one of her favorite operas, says Dyachek who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in 2000 and speaks fluent English, Ukranian and Russian. "When you hear someone do it really well it is so satisfying. It's more of a sung opera than anything and when you hear the voices coming together, the duets, the blends of the two priestesses it's out of this world really," adding that anyone who has the chance to hear Monastyrska and Barton should take it.

Dyachek never intended to go into opera — she had other musical interests starting with violin and piano at age 4 and liked other types of singing better — but when she heard a performance of Aida in Sacramento she was hooked, she says.

When it came time for college, the choice was between going for a medical degree or as a voice major. She was able to chose the latter, she says, because she won a bet with her mother that if she won all her singing competitions her senior year that she could go into music. And she did.

She feels particularly suited to the music in Norma, likes the chance it gives her to do coloratura. "There's the excitement factor. I have all of these 16th notes and they're so exciting and you have that rush of adrenaline and 'I'm going to make it.'"

Performances are scheduled for April 27 through May 11 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturday and Tuesday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Resilience Hall, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida De Las Americas. Sung in Italian with projected text in English. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $25-$322.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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