Story: Norma, high priestess of the druids in Gaul in 50 B.C., holds sway over her people, who are anxious to avenge themselves under the leadership of Norma’s father Oroveso against the conquering Romans. She convinces them instead to pray to the druid moon goddess for peace.

Unbeknownst to Oroveso and others, Norma has had an illicit affair with Pollione, the Roman proconsul by whom she has two children. Pollione, however, has grown tired of Norma and lusts now for a young priestess named Adalgisa. Initially resisting him, Adalgisa eventually falls in love with the Roman and confesses to Norma that she has broken her vow of chastity.

The high priestess is sympathetic to Adalgisa, but is shocked when she learns that the lover of the younger priestess is none other than Pollione. When Pollione sees Norma and Adalgisa together, he professes his love for Adalgisa but she rejects him out of loyalty to Norma.

Wracked with unhappiness, Norma attempts to kill her children but finds herself unable to do so. When Pollione says he must return to Rome, Norma implores Adalgisa to go with him and take Norma’s children, too, and thus raise them out of slavery. Adalgisa refuses.

When Pollione threatens to abduct Adalgisa anyway, Norma summons the druids to war. After they capture Pollione and take him before Norma, however, she decrees that the victim they must sacrifice to the gods is not the Roman but rather a priestess who has broken her vow of chastity.

To the dismay of Oroveso, Norma reveals the identity of the priestess: Herself. As she ascends to the sacrificial pyre, she is joined by the repentant Pollione, who declares that their “holier and everlasting love will begin” in death.

Highlights: A superior performance by soprano Christine Lyons dominates Winter Opera Saint Louis’ strong rendition of Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto opera, Norma.

Other Info: Bellini’s bel canto (“beautiful songs”) opera, which features a libretto by Felice Romani, premiered at La Scala in Milan on December 26, 1831 to an indifferent audience. Bellini was bummed, but eventually Norma became popular and remains one of the staple pieces from Bellini’s oeuvre performed today.

No less an expert than Verdi was impressed with Bellini’s compositions, which he said included “long, long, long melodies.” Several extensive arias can be heard in Norma, with a number of them sung by the title character. Lyons, in her Winter Opera debut, shows considerable power in her lush, lingering soprano, which elevates the production considerably.

Lyons’ acting is polished as well, making Norma a compelling and tragic figure, a formidable force to be reckoned with by Pollione, Oroveso and Adalgisa at different times in the two-act,, three-hour presentation.

There’s also fine work by Italian mezzo-soprano Benedetta Orsi in the role of Adalgisa. She shares a number of arias with Lyons as the two react to their shared fates, each enamored and then victimized by the invader Pollione.

Tenor Peter Drackley shows both Pollione’s self-importance as well as his genuine affection for Norma, mostly in the past tense, and the Roman’s infatuation with Adalgisa. Neil Nelson’s rumbling bass gives a solid foundation to the role of Oroveso, leader of the druids who is filled with sadness when he learns the fate of his daughter.

Also contributing in supportive roles are soprano Grace Fisher as Norman’s faithful confidante Clotilde and tenor Thomas Taylor as Pollione’s friend Flavio. Elle Saleeby and Josi Saleeby appear as Norma’s beloved children.

Conductor Darwin Aquino elicits a moving and absorbing performance of Bellini’s stirring music by the polished Winter Opera orchestra, while stage director John Truitt keeps the focus squarely on the primary players as they deftly handle Bellini’s moving score.

Scott Loebl’s effective scenic design features a woodsy set at stage right, which also houses the temple of the druid god Irminsul, and a simple hut at stage left as Norma’s dwelling. Natali Arco’s lighting accentuates the moon looming in the background in addition to sundry day and night scenes and JC Krajicek dresses the players in ancient attire, differentiating the Romans by their sandals and soldierly garb.

Collaborative pianist Gail Hintz adds her expertise to the proceedings, while chorus master Orsi’s ensemble brings additional depth to the production.

Norma is rich in its musical tapestry, which is woven smartly in Winter Opera Saint Louis’ loving interpretation.

Opera: Norma

Group: Winter Opera Saint Louis

Venue: Skip Viragh Center for Performing Arts, Chaminade College Preparatory School, 425 South Lindbergh

Dates: March 8 at 7:30 p.m., March 10 at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $35-$55; contact 865-0038 or winteroperastl.org

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5 (at a dress rehearsal performance)

Photos courtesy of Convergence Media