Bellini's Norma is one of the great operas, so why isn't it staged more frequently?
Basically because the title role is so hugely demanding, not just vocally, but psychologically and emotionally as well. It needs not just to be sung, but to be understood and entered into. It is not a role for the shall or faint-hearted.
The headline news from Opera North is that in the Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer they have found a singer-actress who is up to the part. Her performance is simply sensational, especially when you consider the demands that director Christopher Alden makes on her as an actress.
But Norma is not a one-woman opera, and, despite 'Casta diva', duets and ensembles are more central to its texture than solo avias. So Norma needs more than adeqaute singing partners, and here too Opera North have come up trumps. In Keri Alkema they have an Adalgisa to match Kremer and provide the balance of equals which ensures that their extended duets, at once touching and brilliant, come off wonderfully.
Luis Chapa plays the Roman proconsul with whom both women have fallen in love. Like some of his famous predecessors he is a Pollione with a big though not especially beautiful tenor voice, but under Alden's intense direction he participates fully in the drama which he has so heedlessly provoked. James Creswell has a magnificent voice, and gives a strong performance as Oroveso, the implacable local leader.
Alden's production renounces the original setting in ancient Gaul under Roman occupation - understandably enough - and relocates it to the nineteenth centruy. But this presents some problems. Who do the top-hatted and frock-coated Pollione and his lecherous side-kick Flavio represent? Are we simply witnessing a form of class conflict?
In fact the political dimensions of the story is played down until the final scenes, when the people - the company chorus in superb voice - beat up Flavio and vent their disgust at Norma's betrayal. Mostly is is the psychology of the central trio which is the focus, and the production and all the individual performances have a coherence and intensity which marks this Norma out as one of the company's real triumphs.
In rep to February 17th, then touring to Nottingham, Salford & Newcastle.
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