Bellini’s ‘Norma’ has one of those plots which can transplant anywhere, any time: wherever a foreign power invades and occupies a country, it fits.
Norma is high-priestess of a druidic cult in Roman-occupied Gaul, but by starting a family with Roman pro-consul Pollione she enacts a double betrayal - of her chastity vow, and of her comptariots; meanwhile Pollione is carrying on with a slave-girl. Corruption all round, to be expiated through exemplary punishment.
The opera may have wonderfully hummable tunes, but its political echoes must also have had something to do with its popularity: Glinka saw a children’s theatre do it in southern Spain, while Dickens found a group of quarrymen singing it in Carrara; the Italian Risorgimento adopted its ‘Guerra, Guerra!’ refrain as one of its anthems. Martin Constantine’s production, which has opened the season at Grange Park Opera, implies a constant awareness of this political dimension, though his alternative Gaul falls somewhere between Serebrenica, Budapest, and Baghdad. The shadowy girl stripped and forced into a vestal robe during the opening scene seems to stand for all those women now being forced to demonstrate their anti-West credentials by Islamification.
But if the Romanesque architecture with its breeze-block filling evokes the Mediterranean, the central tragedy is played out in a banal domesticity everyone can identify with. John Hudson’s Pollione is a slob in a sharp suit, and Sara Fulgoni’s slave-girl Adalgisa is the archetypal woman scorned, while Claire Rutter’s Norma discovers her lover’s infidelity - and wrestles with her conscience - with total verismo. But since all three are big in both vocal and physical presence, the drama acquires mythic force. Hudson’s tenor is a bit sour and forced, but he exudes animal magnetism, and nicely complements Fulgoni’s opulent mezzo and Rutter’s gorgeously steely soprano: real people, you feel, in a real predicament. Ably supported by Stephen Barlow in the pit, the arias, duets, and trios develop searing momentum.
And when the action gets going, it’s gripping. Hovering over her children with a knife, then yielding to her maternal feelings, this Norma sings for all humanity; when she declares her readiness to purify herself on the funeral pyre with Pollione, she becomes transfigured by her own ecstasy. But if Rutter is the star, the production as a whole is a superb piece of ensemble work. Getting to remote Grange Park means a big schlepp, but for this show it’s worth it.