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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week