Norma, Holland Park, London

A woman at the sharp end
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The Independent Culture

The park's peacocks couldn't steal the thunder from this one. Opera Holland Park has romped home again, with its first production of a summer season that brings rare Puccini and Verdi, staple-diet Mozart and two potboilers to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's joyously on-your-doorstep, unostentatious opera venue. Planned to go to Gubbay? Up sticks and head for Holland Park, where the real thing awaits you.

The park's peacocks couldn't steal the thunder from this one. Opera Holland Park has romped home again, with its first production of a summer season that brings rare Puccini and Verdi, staple-diet Mozart and two potboilers to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's joyously on-your-doorstep, unostentatious opera venue. Planned to go to Gubbay? Up sticks and head for Holland Park, where the real thing awaits you.

Bellini's Norma is one of the all-time opera greats. Its chief asset, apart from a composer whose hand Wagner likened to God composing (and you can hear Rienzi, Lohengrin and even that emotional hothouse, Tristan, on the way), is the guy who wrote its book and lyrics: master librettist Felice Romani, who cut his teeth on Mayr, penned L'Elisir for Donizetti, helped launch Verdi, and whose seven-plus libretti for Bellini (he had whipped off more than 50 before he got to Norma) showed everyone else how to do it.

With a clutch of smashing performances (even the small waif duo, budding little senators who narrowly miss a Medea-like sticky end as Nelly Miricioiu's knife-bearing Celt contemplates bloody revenge on her faithless wimp of a Roman spouse), this made a fabulous evening.

A massive dramatic and emotional force at 52 (even when the upper notes elude her), the great Romanian soprano delivers a towering performance. The idyll turns bitter: Norma's experience (the whole point is that she does not share the chasteness of the moon goddess) gives her the edge on kindly Adalgisa, whom the Roman (a serial priestess- abuser with a seven-year itch) has suborned. Miricioiu's absolutely stunning scenes in confrontation and duet with mezzo Diana Montague, the performer of the evening, pound the story home: atrocity hangs in the air.

While Bellini makes a sensitive delineation of the put-upon female, his chaps emerge pretty badly. The American tenor Don Bernardini is a worthwhile find: he doesn't do the acting bit over-well, but his splendid sound has something always in reserve. This was no full-stretch blasting, but an informed, interesting voice that partly overcame Pollione's cardboard tendency. A pity about his ill-fitting costume: those for Norma and Adalgisa looked glorious, but the men's are terrible. The chorus dress was a dire kind of Freischutz meets Braveheart.

Set and props early on were equally awful and the director Mike Ashman gets a gamma minus for chorus management, but the designer Will Bowen's luxuriant (and ominous) scarlet tent for Norma made ample amends. Conal Coad's solid Oroveso sang strongly. But the main reason this Norma hits the solar plexus is the City of London Sinfonia under Brad Cohen. His crisp launch-in sounded almost too like a period outfit - shorn of the Tuscan town-band element one almost expects. But what followed (one cello too few - laurels to the solo clarinet) was a masterly reading: clear, bracing, never unbalancing and, with wonderful, score-based restorations. It was scrupulously faithful to Bellini, a composing genius, here done proud.

To 25 June. Festival runs to 7 August (0845 230 9769; www.operahollandpark.com)

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