ENO’s first Norma

18 Feb

Given Norma‘s reputation for being a “difficult” opera, perhaps it’s not surprising that ENO seems to have waited so long to produce it. The performance that I saw on 17th February was the company’s first and, also, if I’m not mistaken, it’s first staged Bellini (they did the Capuleti in concert while the Coliseum was being refurbished).

In other ways, it’s quite surprising. If you look back at the people ENO have had on their books over the last 30 years – Hunter, Plowright, Eaglen to name the most obvious – they could have cast the title role from among their own regulars perfectly credibly. It’s a measure of how the company has changed that it needs to important two American singers to sing the leading female roles. Let me hasten to add that both were very good indeed, but is this really what our National company ought to be about? Increasingly, it’s looking like a very able talent-spotting venue for very promising young singers that haven’t yet got to the stage where they’ll be singing at the ROH.

Norma is one of my favourite operas. I respond immediately to Bellini’s intensely dramatic approach to dealing with conflict and his way of developing drama through a few, rather long, musical numbers. I love his ability to find a musical language to express the different emotions and the conflict.  The greatness of Norma is in Bellini’s ability, like Rossini’s, to let the musical numbers take the strain – the situations and the emotions change during the duets which become dialogues as intense as anything that Wagner wrote.   I love the simple intensity of the melodies and the certainty of the effects.  It’s a long piece and there are bits where I could feel the audience getting a bit restive but there’s not a note of it that I would cut.  I’m not sure that anyone wrote a more beautiful finale and moving finale to an opera until the Liebestod or, possibly, Walkure.

It was good to hear it in English.  My seat had no view of the surtitles but I found I understood more of the plot than I have in the past (even with surtitles) and the audeince felt gripped at the big dramatic moments, as when Norma announces that she is the traitress and the silence was palpable. George Hall’s new translation struck me as sensible and intelligible. Diction from the singers was variable: I think I probably heard about 65% of the words, but all of the really important ones.

It’s one of those operas that can only hope to succeed if the musical side works. This means an understanding conductor and a cast that can cope with the demands. ENO had them here. Stephen Lord’s conducting of the first act struck me as masterly. I loved his sense of rubato, his care in shaping the melodies, the dramatic point that he gave them. Like Muti when he conducted Capuleti in 1984, he left you in no doubt that you were hearing a masterpiece. I had a few more reservatons in Act II – there were times when he was just a bit slow, where the performance was coming perilously close to stopping? I’ve heard the last number have greater sweep. The orchestra played pretty marvellously for him; the chorus sang decently.

As Norma, we had Marjorie Owens. She’s got a big voice with a huge range and variety of colours. She reminded you why mezzos occasionally claim Norma for themselves. It’s a big voice, capable of managing the fury and passion, but can the soft, intense singing.  She’s not Callas and I felt that she was stretched in some of the faster sections – particularly the cabaletta to Casta Diva. But this was a seriously, very credible, beautifully sung performance that attained real stature at the end.

She was matched by Jennifer Holloway’s Adalgisa.  Holloway’s voice is recognisably a mezzo but lighter that Owens’s and the two voices had just the right sort of contrast.  She sings this musically really well and the duets with Owens were moments of drama but also gave the sort of sensual pleasure that I remember from Baltsa and Gruberova singing in the Capuleti or Sabbatini doing Credease misera in the last ROH Puritani – that wonderful Bellini technique or making you feel that you are listening to the most purely beautiful thing ever written.

Peter Auty made a fine Pollione.  He’s sounding more and more like Arthur Davies did in his prime – that very English, rather white tone.  It worked well here and I thoroughly enjoyed his very reliable, idiomatic singing and excellent diction.  James Creswell was predictably fine as Pollione.  Very strong performances from Valerie Reid as Clotilde and Adrian Dwyer as Flavio.

I saw Christopher Alden’s production for Opera North when they did it in Newcastle.  I didn’t feel that it transferred well to a larger theatre.  I think he suggested the idea of an oppressive power well – Pollione and Flavio as Victorian capitalists exploiting an agricultural community.  The suppressed violence, predictably, comes across well.  I was much less sure about the long tree trunk as the main religious symbol – it looked clumsy and difficult for people to get on and off.  And there was a vast amount of rolling around that didn’t help much, people placed too far back.  It felt a bit lost in the Coliseum.  And there were moments which raised laughter: the sudden clinch for Norma and Pollione before In mio man is the last place where you want a laugh.  Ditto when Norma hurls an axe into the wall rather than murdering her children – she wakes them up and they dash over to the other side of the stage and you feel the audience having every sympathy with them.  I don’t think that there are many laughs in Norma or that you need to create them.  Still, I suppose this is a one-off series of performances and it provides a showcase for Ms Owens.

So musically, I had a lovely time and I’d recommend anyone who loves this music to go along and enjoy some superb playing and singing.  And Alden’s production is just a bit silly, not actively offensive.  Given that this was the first staging of the opera in London since 1987, it was a welcome evening.

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