Rarely staged in Greece, Vincenzo Bellini’s opera «Norma,» popular with local audiences mostly because of Maria Callas’s famous renditions of the aria «Casta Diva,» is set to open at the Herod Atticus Theater today. «Norma» is a new production by the National Opera, a long-suffering institution whose members seem determined to do their best despite the company’s serious financial woes. «Our theater is going through the most difficult time in its [70-year] history and things are very hard for us,» said tenor Angelo Simos, alternating in the part of Pollione with Calin Bratescu, at a recent press conference. «But it took on this production and that is why we will make it the best possible; we owe it to the National Opera, which is our home, and to all those who have worked here [over the years],» he added. The opera will go on stage this weekend as well as June 18 and 19, with two different casts; a mostly Greek production sees Dimitra Theodossiou in the demanding title role, Angelo Simos as Pollione, Celia Costea as Adalgisa, Dimitris Kavrakos as Oroveso, Victoria Maifatova as Clotilde and Nikos Stefanou as Flavio on the opening night as well as June 18. On Sunday and on June 19, the cast will consist of Radostina Nikolaeva, Elena Cassian, Calin Bratescu, Dimitris Kassioumis, Rosa Poulimenou and Dimitris Sigalos. The opera bears the signature of distinguished theater director Spyros Evangelatos, with sets designed by Giorgos Patsas. Maestro Lukas Karytinos will conduct the National Opera orchestra and Nikos Vasiliou will lead the choir. «Norma,» an opera in two acts, premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1831. Set in Roman-occupied Gaul, it essentially tells of the affair between the Gaul priestess Norma and the Roman proconsul Pollione, with whom she secretly has two children. As the Gauls prepare to revolt against Roman rule, she learns that Pollione is now after the young priestess Adalgisa, leaving her feeling betrayed and enraged. The role for the lead soprano is highly demanding and that is one of the reasons, according to Karytinos, that it is not staged very often. «You need to have a good Norma,» he said. «We are lucky to have Dimitra Theodossiou with us.» «’Norma’ is the peak of bel canto,» said director Evangelatos. «For a modern mise en scene, you cannot follow the historical setting of the libretto because you will end up with something reminiscent of Asterix and Obelix. In collaboration with Giorgos Patsas, we created a setting that recalls some distant past that is not defined – it could be anytime from Roman antiquity to the Middle Ages and it reflects the feeling of an old world that no longer exists.» He added that because this is a musical work with great vocal resonance, a director has to be careful and suitably subtle with the sets. Nikos Mourkogiannis, who recently took up the post of president of the National Opera’s board of directors, adamantly refused to discuss finances when asked by the press. «This day belongs to ‘Norma.’ Let’s not ruin it.» Performances start at 9 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the Greek Festival box office (39 Panepistimiou, tel 210.327.2000), at www.greekfestival.gr and at the Olympia Theater (59-61 Academias, tel 210.361.2461).