Free from the curse of mealy-mouthed “authentic” performances such as those delivered by Bartoli and her ever-diminishing Norminetta, there was something approaching the grandeur of Bellini’s masterpiece at Opera Holland Park, thanks largely to Yvonne Howard’s strong and vocally secure performance. This was not an evening for the musical grave robbers (archaeologists is too a kind a description) amongst us. Those who insist on performing the opera come scritto, complete with delusional imaginings about whether Pasta sounded like a vocally anaemic mezzo, manage to deny us 183 years of performance development from the likes of Ponselle, Callas and Sutherland, whilst simultaneously delivering all the excitement of a wet weekend in Skegness. Opera Holland Park made a valiant stab at capturing the spirit of the opera even if, for the most part, it eluded them. Whatever the results, OHP are often brave and adventurous in their repertoire selection, and whilst Norma is indeed a great opera, it is not performed anywhere near as often as it ought to, thanks to the challenges of finding a singer who can step into the shoes of operatic titans and take on this most formidable role in the bel canto repertory.

The oft-repeated Lehmannism that Norma is more challenging than all of the Brünnhildes combined, is no over-exaggeration. It’s a long, arduous sing that requires immense stamina, a triumphant bel canto technique, deft coloratura and real pit of the stomach fire. It’s hard to think of a true equal, perhaps Elektra but for very different reasons. You only have to listen to Bellini’s wonderful score to imagine the type of singer that he envisaged – a truly protean creation. The problem is, and it’s quite a major one, no one has ever truly and completed captured Norma to a degree of unassailable perfection. Callas had the blaze and intensity in enormous quantities, but it was wed to a wayward technique and a voice that could curdle milk without it having to leave the udder. Every performance flawed in many ways. Sutherland, who sang it more than any other singer in history, could sing it with absolute vocal perfection, a feat no other singer could truly equal, a paragon of bel canto virtues, but her temperament was sorely lacking. Where was the rage, the pain, the fury? Caballé, a kind of half-way house (and I’m not referring to her ballast here) could deliver satisfying vocals and a modicum of temperament, but next to the other two great ladies, hers was a compromise too far – all very nice, but not exactly triumphant in respect of vocals or drama. With such eminent predecessors, it takes a very brave woman to step into Norma’s presumably vine-woven sandals. We can’t however, live on past glories and luckily enough there are some very fine interpreters of the role around today – Claire Rutter, Anne-Marie Kremer, Angela Meade, even Sondra Radvanovksy when she’s not going flat.

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Yvonne Howard certainly had a good stab at the role (and everyone within a hundred meters of her), demonstrating a strong and reliable technique, easily encompassing heavy chest notes, stunning acuti (the top D at the end of the trio probably laid waste to several of the park’s peacocks – and about time too), pin-point staccati and a good sense of line. “Casta diva” sung in the traditional lower key of F was beautifully delivered with real vocal poise and control, but once she exerted some pressure on her upper register, the sound become a tad metallic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly out of keeping with the type of sound one would expect to hear in bel canto opera. The cabaletta “Ah! bello a me ritorna”, found Howard in fine fettle, meeting all of the florid demands, but it was in her duets with Adalgisa (“Mira, o Norma” in particular) and “In mia man” with Pollione, that we could contrast the sheer confidence and security of her voice against colleagues who were not in the same vocal league.

For me, however, it was in the finale that she achieved tragic grandeur, with a sweeping and melancholy account of “Deh, non voleri vittime”. Her voice rose easily above the combined forces of the orchestra and chorus, ending with a stunning top C that would be the envy of many a famous soprano today. It’s still very much a work in progress, but you cannot help but be impressed by her stamina and her rock solid technique. Norma is a marathon sing and Howard went the distance unscathed. The tone, whilst pleasant, is not exactly distinct enough to leave an indelible aural impression, but her characterisation grew throughout the performance. My only true gripe was the lack of a trill and that appalling condition which blights so many singers from our tiny island, namely forgetting to be idiomatic with her Italian and instead pronouncing every single word in a terribly, terribly English way. “Casta diva” sadly sounded a touch too G&S for my liking, but then W S Gilbert did indeed write an operatic burlesque based upon Norma called Pretty Druidess!

Regrettably, neither the Pollione nor the Adalgisa were in the same league as the Norma. Heather Shipp’s voice was plain wrong for Adalgisa. Wooden coloratura, choppy legato and strident high notes that went slightly flat – her top C was a very painful note that could have finished off some of the older patrons in the audience. It was all so effortful, when part of the magic of bel canto singing is to make the seemingly impossible sound easy. It’s a reminder that Adalgisa is in fact a soprano role, sitting uncomfortably high for many mezzos. I’m not expecting Marilyn Horne to come wandering on to the stage, but I also want something a bit more refined and subtle than what sounded like an occasionally out of tune of trumpet. The tone was also rather hollow and monochrome. I have heard Ms Shipp before and she is indeed a fine singer, but hers in not a bel canto voice. The duets with Norma require a seamless blending of the voices, rather than an awkward and clunky articulation of what we ought to be hearing. Her acting was also far too mawkish and full of empty gestures that just made you want to throw a box of matches to Norma and tell her to get the pyre ready.

If Shipp wasn’t really suitable for Adalgisa, then next to Joseph Wolverton’s woeful Pollione she was a paragon of vocal finesse. I’ve seen endless performances of Norma and never have I encountered such an under-powered and vocally ill-equipped tenor to sing this role. He cracked twice in “Svanir le voci!……Me protegge , me difende” and then proceeded to murder the vocal dynamics so that we could barely hear him. When he did sing out, it was with all the power of an elderly countertenor. He was vocally over-shadowed, not just by the Norma and the Adalgisa, but by the lady in row C who seemed to be choking on the remnants of her picnic. It didn’t help that he looked like Neil Hamilton from where I was sitting, which is most unfortunate. He did however manage to muster an improvement in Act II, and kept it together for “In mia man”, but it was all so provincial. Even his acting was stilted, lifeless and unmemorable. How is this possible with such a repugnant character as Pollione? As far as I can tell his virtues are few, but Wolverton’s vocal timbre is one of them, evidencing a rather beautiful tenor. It’s very Italianate with a hint of Big Lucy about it, but tone without vocal support is all rather pointless. Was he perhaps out of sorts, riven with nerves? I can only write of what I had heard.

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Keel Watson’s Oroveso had plenty of presence and commanded the stage whenever he was on it. It’s a dark and rich bass-baritone, but it is now becoming a tad frayed at the top, with some spread threatening to descend into a full scale wobble. Still, his was a memorable contribution to the evening. Clotilde, a kind of Druidic babysitter, was sung by Rosalind Coad. It’s an attractive soprano and her stage deportment was both natural and engaging.

The conducting was, I’m sad to report, lamentable. I had no idea it was possible to deliver such a pedestrian performance, but Peter Robinson managed it. Norma became increasingly oom-pah throughout the evening – riddled in this man’s hands with tempi that were at points far too fast, then far too languorous. “Casta diva” was too quick, the cabaletta too slow, the duets all too fast and throughout the rest of the evening, I kept hearing a mis-match of cues between the orchestra and the singers. On numerous occasions I would hear singers starting a phrase too early or too late. There was no love for this score, no feeling, no empathy – it could have been anything cranked out by Donizetti or Bellini. It was a truly undistinguished performance, which did no justice to what I know would otherwise be a much finer account by the City of London Sinfonia. The chorus were on better form. There are a couple of rogue tenors that like to keep out of time with the rest, but otherwise it was pretty solid work, especially in their call to arms in the “Guerra, guerra!”. What didn’t help was the over-expressive gestures they were forced to exhibit, making it all look a touch Les Mis at times.

The production itself by Olivia Fuch was effective enough, with the Romans replaced by what I assumed to be American troops and the Druids by something akin to Romany peasants. The setting was non-specific as far as I can tell, with the Gauls being transplanted to what could either be Afghanistan or somewhere in Eastern Europe! The staging by and large worked, but some of the effects like the despoiling of the sacred grove, were ruined by the emphasis placed upon something as daft and insignificant as a crushed beer can. The little details matter, as they often stick in the memory. The funeral pyre however, was a stroke of genius and remarkably effective, the best I’ve seen in a long while.

This opera isn’t performed anywhere near enough, recent outings include Opera North’s staging in 2012 and Grange Park Opera’s back in 2009. Rumour has it that Netrebko (God help us), will be making her debut in what will no doubt be a crash and burn performance at Covent Garden in 2016. Perhaps it’s the lot of this opera to keep waiting for its perfect performance, but until then, there is much to enjoy and some very fine singing from Howard at OHP. This opera is all about the title role, so when all is said and done, reservations about everything else pales into insignificance as long as the title role is confidently handled and well executed, and here Howard’s grand assumption is a fine performance indeed.

3 stars

Antony Lias

(Photos : Fritz Curzon)

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