The drama of Bellini’s masterpiece Norma relies on each of the four main protagonists being unaware of a secret kept or a vital plot development. All of the big hinge points in the opera stem from the revelation of one character’s secret to another. Only at the climax of the opera are all pretences and subterfuges stripped away in one of the most sublime scenes in all opera. A scene, which, with the right singers and production, can reduce the watcher to an emotional husk. This was certainly the case in the recent Salzburg production. In the case of Callas’ recording the emotional sledgehammer effect can even be achieved by aural means alone. However, it is clear right from the opening tableau in ENO’s new production that the director, Christopher Alden, does not believe in the importance of the various secrets and revelations. The first image of the evening is Oroveso sharpening a sacrificial axe while Norma’s children sit on a massive log which dominates Charles Edwards’ Shaker Meeting house set. In an instant the dramatic construct of Norma’s imperative need to conceal her lost chastity and resulting motherhood from her father (and High Priest) is shattered. Alden attempts to spin this by keeping Oroveso on stage for the entire 90 minute first half (even though musically he has left the stage nearly an hour before curtain down) and has him constantly indulge in gurning imprecations to his wayward daughter to return to the straight and narrow and, by implication, war with the Romans. Indeed, poor James Creswell had performed so much mime that by the time of the character’s musical reappearance in Act II it was a jarring shock when he started singing again.

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Needless to say the Romans are not Romans but stove pipe hatted landowners. This has the unfortunate side effect of giving Peter Auty’s Pollione the look of Colin Firth’s Darcy gone to seed. For some reason the minor character of Flavio is built up hugely and remodelled as a moustachioed villain straight out of Maria Marten and the Red Barn. His drunken attempt to rape one of the female acolytes is punished in a gruesomely apposite fashion. One of several ludicrous moments comes when both Romans stay onstage reading the papers and smoking during the “secret” druidic ceremony. Auty is, inexcusably, required to rustle his paper in noisy impatience during the sublime second verse of “Casta Diva”.

Meanwhile, we are treated to the standard Alden tropes of wall clutching, floor writhing and slo-mo movement. These devices, once so vibrant and exciting, have become the operatic equivalent of the Chef’s Salad – old ingredients served on a different plate masquerading as something fresh. Another recurring annoyance was characters remaining onstage long after their proscribed exit, thus making a nonsense of many solo and duet scenes which rely on a lack of outside observers. More than once a character exclaimed “Now I am alone” to which the only logical answer could be “Have you considered an eye examination?” This constant monkeying with Bellini and Romani’s instructions has a far more serious effect than Alden realises, as it removes the sense of dire jeopardy that hangs over so much of the opera.

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What is all the more frustrating is that, behind all these aggravations, Alden’s central idea is actually a compelling rethink of an opera that visually, despite its sublime music, can often appear to be an operatic retelling of Asterix the Gaul. One has only to look at pictures of the Callas productions (and quite a few more recent visual horrors) to be grateful to Alden for dodging that particular bullet. Removing the necessity to put Gaulish Stonehenges and sacred oaks onstage makes the designer’s task an awful lot less prone to unintentional comedy. Edwards’ coolly austere set is an appropriate response to the concept and is ably lit by Adam Silverman (though he should consider the intrusive moving light frame change at the top of Act II. This sort of device can be an exciting addition to the lighting designer’s toolbag but, when only used once during an evening, merely serves to distract especially when the first frame setting is allowed to spill all over the slowly rising house tabs).

The aforementioned Salzburg production with Cecilia Bartoli demonstrated that a director can radically rethink the opera and produce a hair-raisingly intense evening of music theatre. Sadly, Alden’s reliance on old tricks obscures and blunts his interesting central idea. One should realise that one is in trouble when moments that should chill or move to tears provoke loud guffaws from some of the well-oiled stalls patrons.

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Fortunately the musical side was a good deal more satisfying. I had heard mixed reports of Marjorie Owens’ performances in roles as diverse as Strauss’ Daphne and Verdi’s Aïda. However, the role of Norma seems to suit her extremely well. The voice is equally strong in long lined cantilena and fast coloratura and the traverse to the top of the range is exciting and strong. A little too strong sometimes, as there were times when I wished she would explore more light and shade in the high-lying fast lines. Her voice blended well with Jennifer Holloway’s attractive Adalgisa and she rose to the grand sacrifice of the final scene. Some of the orchestral recitatives could do with a more detailed response, though the complex opening section leading to “Casta Diva” is very well done. Also very fine was the anguished opening of Act II especially the collapse on “Ah no! Son miei figli”. What is absent at the moment (and much of this can be laid at the door of the director) is the coruscating rage that one can hear in Callas’ performance and, more recently, in Bartoli’s unconventional but superbly compelling assumption.

Jennifer Holloway is an unusually strong-willed Adalgisa and, despite the production undermining several of her big scenes, made a strong impression musically and dramatically. She was kept onstage for the whole final scene, which on the face of it makes little sense but, in practice, contributed to the sense of lives in mortal danger. There is an occasional tendency for her voice to harden under pressure but this was a rewarding performance. There was a lovely blend of voices in “Mira, o Norma” but in the fast section both singers seemed to be pulling against the conductor. It is worth noting that neither she nor Owens is at all flatteringly costumed. When will designers learn that voluminous greatcoats are flattering to almost no body shape?

Peter Auty started the evening in rather muted style, perhaps overawed by the difficulties inherent in “Meco all’altar di Venere”. He dodged the top C, which resulted in an awkward moment of musical fudging. Fortunately he rallied and produced some fine singing for the remainder of the evening. His voice cut through the densely scored finale in exciting style. Unfortunately, the production undercut the role badly by making him an entirely unsympathetic character. Shorn of his Proconsular glamour there was little clue as to why he had two strong women falling over themselves to be his lover. Nevertheless, this was some of the best singing I have heard from Auty.

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James Creswell has become a regular and very welcome guest at ENO. His rock solid voice and penetrative upper range makes him ideal for the big bass roles and Oroveso is no exception. Whether rising over the chorus or plumbing the depths of grief at the opera’s climax he was well nigh perfect. This, despite having to work against the libretto especially in that last scene when all his certainties should be ripped away but instead in this production he is left merely to pretend he knew nothing. I hope to see Creswell at Covent Garden soon.

I cannot say I was particularly taken with Stephen Lord’s conducting of this miraculous score. Especially when compared to the stripped back sound of Giovanni Antonini’s scalpel-precise Salzburg band the ENO orchestra often sounded thick and soupy. It was almost as if all the scholarly work on bel canto scores had never happened and we had turned back the clock to the 1950s. There were also a good too many poorly-managed hairpin turns (of which this score is packed). I imagine the score will settle over the run but it made for some briefly uncomfortable moments on opening night. I should mention that George Hall‘s unfussy translation was admirably clear and mercifully free of purple prose.

The chorus were, as always, on top form and at least Alden gave them plenty to do (unlike several recent productions where they were required to do little more than stand in serried ranks). They were suitably hair-raising in “Guerra! Guerra!” and could have been even better with a more dynamic lead from the pit. Disappointingly, the slow coda to the chorus was cut. It should be superfluous to state that this marvellous chorus, as with any great opera ensemble, is the lifeblood of company. Sadly, at the moment, it seems only too necessary to restate that obvious fact.

4 stars

Sebastian Petit

(Photos : Alastair Muir – from the Opera North & ENO productions)

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