An anguished triangular romance? One of the most dependable of plot designs, sure to trigger vengeance and regret. The use of children as pawns? Sadly, an all too familiar phenomenon. Love set against a backdrop of oppression and a looming war? A combination that invariably raises the stakes. The tension between loyalty to one’s country and loyalty to one’s heart? Comes with the territory.

The story that drives Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 “Norma,” with its libretto by Felice Romani, contains all the most elemental ingredients of tragic opera. What sets it apart is its “bel canto” (“beautiful singing”) style, which requires singers of great technical prowess who can finesse the score’s beauty of tone, sinuous phrasing and extreme vocal acrobatics while also creating believable characters.

‘NORMA’

Recommended
When: Through Feb. 24
Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago
at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $49 – $269
Info: (312) 827-5600;
www.lyricopera.org/norma
Run time: 3 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The “new-to-Chicago” production that opened Saturday at Lyric Opera (and was previously mounted by the San Francisco Opera, Canadian Opera Company and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu) is elegant but uneven. Though visually intriguing, it has been rather stiffly directed by Kevin Newbury. And while it has many passages of superb singing by both its soloists and chorus, they are not entirely uniform. Far more dependable here is the Lyric orchestra, impeccably conducted by Riccardo Frizza, which makes its own beautiful sound, with Bellini’s overture, alone, suggesting the composer’s ability to slip seamlessly from the most delicate, lyrical, “singing” motifs to passages of great fury.

“Norma” is set in 50 B.C., when the Romans occupied Gaul, an area (roughly the site of modern France and northern Italy) then inhabited by Celtic tribes. The Celts are looking to Norma (Sondra Radvanovsky), high priestess of the Druids, to signal the most propitious time to begin the war that will send the conquering Romans and their proconsul Pollione (Russell Thomas) back home. She urges peace, at least for the moment, but her motives are intensely personal for she has been in love with Pollione for years and had two still small children with him. In short, she has engaged in an extended act of betrayal of her people.

Meanwhile, Pollione has more recently been engaging in his own act of betrayal, having fallen in love with Adalgisa (Elizabeth DeShong), the novice Druid priestess who is almost like a daughter to Norma. Adalgisa’s guilt over this liaison is so intense that, despite Pollione’s entreaties to come to Rome with him, she ultimately rejects him and confesses her betrayal to Norma.

Sondra Radvanovsky (left) and Elizabeth DeShong in Bellini's "Norma," at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)

Sondra Radvanovsky (left) and Elizabeth DeShong in Bellini’s “Norma,” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)

There is a great deal more, of course, including Norma’s thoughts of infanticide (she is terrified that her children will become slaves under the Romans), followed by her plea to Adalgisa to go off with Pollione and protect the children. Finally there is her own act of confession and a dual immolation. Yes, this is opera.

Among the most moving moments are the intimate ones, particularly those in which Norma recalls the ecstasy of her initial love for Pollione, and later joins voices with Adalgisa in an act of feminine bonding. Radvanovsky’s voice doesn’t always hit the most thrilling upper notes with the sureness that made the role such a showcase for the likes of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, especially in the “Casta diva” (“Chaste goddess”) aria of the first act. But she is a thoughtful, graceful actress, and when she blends voices with DeShong, whose powerful mezzo never wavers (but who is badly served by her costume and wig), the notion of bel canto is very much alive, with the exquisite “Mira, o Norma” duet — in which Adalgisa tells Norma to “look at your dear children” — absolutely sublime.

Thomas uses his strong, dependable tenor to suggest just the right sense of entitlement in his relationships with both women. The Italian bass Andrea Silvestri possesses the stature necessary for Norma’s father, Oroveso, Chief of the Druids, who ultimately takes pity on his daughter’s plight. Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi exudes a maternal calm as Clotilde, Norma’s confidante. And each appearance by the large male chorus is reason to celebrate, even if at times the music Bellini has written for them is more “beautiful” than fully suggestive of their continually thwarted drive to head to war.

The handsome set design for the opera is the work of David Korins, who also created the world of “Hamilton.” It confirms him as an artist with a love for architectural structure and the power of wood, and one who in this case can conjure a pagan world with a certain magic born of a grove of towering silver and gold tree trunks, the most delicate snowfall and a giant mythic bull (all masterfully lit by Duane Schuler).

A scene from Bellini's "Norma," at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)

A scene from Bellini’s “Norma,” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)