Norma, Grand Theatre, Leeds
Wagner Dream, Barbican Hall, London

Bellini's best-known opera enjoys high drama and distinguished singing

In a period of unparalleled fascination with altered states – somnambulism, mesmerism, madness – it is odd that Bellini's 1831 opera Norma has no mad scene. Though the obsessively circling string figures, hushed chorus, long lustral melody and ecstatic ornaments of its famous cavatina, "Casta diva", suggest a trance, the most arresting aspect of Norma's personality is her lucidity. Pagan priestess, fury, seer and collaborateuse horizontale, she remains clear-headed throughout the opera, the voice of an oppressed people and an oppressed sex.

Ferocious and beautiful, Annemarie Kremer, the Dutch soprano at the centre of Christopher Alden's Opera North production, seems not so much to act or sing the role of Norma as live it. Her voice is frank, generous, sensual, her phrasing stylish and intelligent, Norma's renegade physicality expressed without inhibition. Rolling down the rake of Charles Edwards's set, frozen over the sleeping bodies of her sons, axe in hand, or astride the huge wooden pillar that is her people's totem and altar, she is compulsively watchable. Small wonder that Pollione (Luis Chapa), the Roman proconsul who fathered her children then grew bored of her, fears her anger.

Alden has moved the story from Roman-occupied Gaul to a rural community in the mid-19th century, when paganism resurfaced as an expression of nationalism. Hawthorn and mistletoe are cut as offerings, the tools of field and forge brandished as the weapons of revolt. Pollione and Flavio (Daniel Norman) sport stove-pipe hats and pocket-watches, glance at newspapers the locals cannot read, carouse, harass and transgress, smoking their cigarillos in a sacred space. The grossness of their behaviour is revealed in Flavio's drunken assault on a young priestess (Charlotte Thornton). Justice, when it comes, is rough. During the Act II "Guerra! Guerra!" chorus, he is castrated.

Some will balk at Alden's provocations: the semi-sapphic tumbles, the exaggerated movement direction which, in truth, only works when the singing is equally intense. More comfortable in ensemble than when singing solo, Chapa looks silly dry-humping a tree. But were he as good a singer as Kremer, Norman, Keri Alkema (Adalgisa), Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (the catatonic Clotilde) or James Creswell (a baleful, all-seeing Oroveso), he wouldn't. Tension is meticulously built and rebuilt, the chorus powerfully mobilised, the orchestral playing taut and dramatic under Oliver von Dohnányi. In the end, Norma is a series of decisions: to kill or not to kill the children, to unleash a rebellion, to utter the words "Son io!". What a thrilling, magnificent, maddening work.

The first BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion weekend of 2012 closed with a semi-staged performance of Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream, set in the last hours of Wagner's life, as he wrestles with death, unable to complete his last project, an opera on the Buddhist story of Prakriti, the untouchable whose love is so pure that she is allowed to join an order of monks. We can but imagine what Wagner's Prakriti would have sounded like. (A happy Kundry?) But Harvey's Prakriti (Claire Booth) is a tender, innocent flame of sorrow and joy.

Half-opera, half-play, Wagner Dream is a beguiling, perplexing work. Beguiling because of the radiance described in Harvey's pointillist orchestration of the realm between life and death – all quivers and shimmers of electro-acoustic colour, a balmy glow of tuned percussion and half-remembered songs. Perplexing because of the prosaic spoken dialogue that frames it. The harrumphing of Wagner (Nicholas Le Prevost) and cooing of Cosima (Ruth Lass) are an unwelcome counterpoint to Prakriti's ecstatic suffering and the gentle admonishments of Buddha. Under Martyn Brabbins, each flicker of light from the orchestra had clarity and purpose, while Booth, Andrew Staples and Roderick Williams sang with poise and grace.

'Norma' (0844 848 2720) to 17 Feb, then touring

Next Week

Anna Picard meets a modern-day Minnie in West End Girl, a reworking of Puccini's La fanciulla del West

Classical Choice

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Hallé and Nikolaj Znaider in Bartók's Second Violin Concerto, Sibelius's The Bard and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (Thu). Richard Jones's production of The Tales of Hoffmann opens at the London Coliseum (Fri) with Barry Banks as Offenbach's bedazzled hero.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss