Ten years ago, the first time I saw Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera, Norma, at the Met, I noticed one quirky bit of stage business. In the opera, the Roman proconsul Pollione has come to 50 B.C.E. Gaul to pacify the locals. He’s also pursuing a young, lovely priestess, Adalgisa. But his buddy Flavio calls him out: Pollione has already seduced the high priestess, Norma. Norma broke her vows and betrayed the revolution for Pollione’s sake—and gave birth to their two sons. So what about Norma and the kids?
Pollione spreads his hands in an offhand, bro-ish shrug, as though it’s too much effort to sing, “So what?” or, “Whaddya want me to do about it?” (We never see Flavio again; presumably he’s been demoted.)
After that, I looked for what I dubbed the “Met shrug”—the “man shrug,” really. Isolde calls out Tristan for murdering her fiancé and capturing her for a forced marriage: shrug. Pinkerton impregnates and abandons fifteen-year-old Butterfly and gets called out: shrug. The Met’s movement coach had nailed it: so hilarious, so casually entitled, so irresponsible, so right: “Whaddya want me to do about toxic masculinity? La donna è mobile!”
From The Marriage of Figaro to Don Giovanni, from Turandot to Tosca to Carmen, the sexual assault, rape, and murder of women are stock plot contrivances. Some contemporary productions treat the violence in subversive ways, as Heartbeat Opera did with Butterfly this spring. The Met’s new Norma doesn’t break any new directorial ground—it relies entirely on the staggering artistry, vocal powers, and charisma of Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa—but Norma doesn’t need a new take to be the opera you should listen to this month, this week, right now. It’s the opera where a woman’s “I believe you” changes everything.
In a long, harrowing duet, Adalgisa confesses to Norma that she’s violated her vows by falling in love. Remembering her own transgressions, Norma forgives her, then asks who Adalgisa’s lover is. At that moment, Pollione walks in on them. (“Oops,” said a man two seats over from me.)
Pollione freaks out at Adalgisa. (“Wretched girl! What have you done?”) Norma freaks out at Pollione. (“She is not to blame; the guilty one is you!”) And what about Adalgisa, who discovers that the man she loves has been having a long affair with another woman, that he hurt her and lied to them both? How does she choose between her love for the perpetrator and the suffering of another woman?
Adalgisa takes Norma’s side. She tells Pollione, “Leave me—go away! You are a faithless husband!” She tells him to return to his family. She tells her friend:
Never allow that I may be
The cause of such pain in your heart.
Seas and mountains forever
Will divide me from the traitor.
I shall stifle my cries
And swallow my anguish;
I shall die to bring back
This cruel man to his children, to you.
When Pollione insists—against her will—upon stealing her away to Rome, Adalgisa flees in disgust.
The patriarchy means that feminist alliances rarely win. Norma first has to run a course of bad-feminist destructive behavior. Adalgisa pleads Norma’s case with the man they’re both better off without and when Pollione refuses to renew his affections, Norma blames Adalgisa. Then Norma decides that a priestess who’s broken her vows must be burned alive to appease the god Irminsul—because if sacrificing Adalgisa is necessary to revenge herself on Pollione, all’s fair in love and war!
Finally, though, Norma has a change of heart: she will immolate herself, and her own guilt, rather than Adalgisa’s. Pollione shouts to the crowd, “Don’t believe her!” But she declares, “Norma non mente.” (Norma doesn’t lie.) Awed by her sacrifice, Pollione remembers why he loved her. He joins her in the flames, which nobody asked for, but okay.
What happens to Adalgisa after the curtain falls? She escaped ravishment by the man she’s come to despise. She didn’t burn. In all likelihood, she moves into Norma’s yurt with Norma’s nanny, Clotilde, adopts the kids, and lives happily ever after.
There’s more than one operatic heroine who turns the tables on misogyny: Tosca uses a letter opener to stab an oppressive rapist cop. Brünnhilde revenges herself on her abusers by setting the whole world on fire. “Brava!” we shout. But both Tosca and Brünnhilde die. While the world ends, it doesn’t change, and we’re left with the reality that no victim or survivor can singlehandedly transform an entrenched system of violence, abuse, and misogyny.
It’s maddening when survivors are the sole voices crying for justice. But when millions shout and nothing changes—when justice doesn’t come—all we have is each other. It’s a small step toward change, but it’s crucial: to listen to the abused, to believe them, to side with all those who speak out. To warn the abusers: we believe what the survivors said. We see what you did, “senza nube e sense vel” (without cloud or veil). That’s why Adalgisa’s choice is so moving: through her own suffering and love she tells Norma, I believe you. You are my friend. We’ve both been hurt, so I choose you. And even though the fact that you still want this man is batshit, I support you.
I have found my friend again.
For the rest of my life
I shall always stay with you.
The earth is big enough
To shelter us both from love.
Together with you, courageously,
We shall fight outrageous Destiny,
As long as in our breasts
Our loving hearts shall beat …
Norma resumes at the Met on December 1; in the meantime, any recording will deliver the goods.
Alison Kinney is a correspondent for the Daily; this is the seventh installment of her opera column, Songs to the Moon. Her writing has appeared online at The New Yorker, Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly, Longreads, Hyperallergic, and VAN Magazine; her first book is Hood (Bloomsbury).