OPERA / Brash warrior spirit turns punk in warpaint: Norma; Jenufa

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The Independent Culture
NORMA, in Bellini's opera of the same name, threatens to kill her children but doesn't - knowing that even an illustrious stage heroine can lose the sympathy of her audience if she isn't careful. The Kostelnicka in Janacek's Jenufa threatens to kill someone else's child and does - which makes her a more perilous undertaking in terms of performance psychology, required to steer a path towards redemption and endearment through an indefensible act. But both ladies are formidable after their fashion; both are fierce moral protagonists whose tragedy is that they fall short of their own standards; and both are currently at large in Britain.

Norma is in Glasgow, staged by Ian Judge for Scottish Opera. It is the last new production of John Mauceri's time there as music director: a grand summatory spectacular designed to end his seven years in office on an up beat, and succeeding gloriously. John Gunter's sets are an astounding tour de force, accommodating fast and frequent changes without ever looking less than solidly imposing. The costumes are sumptuous and no sillier than Norma deserves: you soon get used to the idea of Druidic Gauls dressed like Mohican punks. And Ian Judge has found a tone for the piece that works well: ceremonial, exuberant, but without fuss - except that we get too much of those children, whose obtrusive pillow-fighting while their mother sings is as persuasive an incitement to infanticide as I can imagine.

Judge is particularly adept at linking-ideas that move one scene into the next, introducing Adalgisa out of the crowds of the big Druidic ritual for her first number, and opening Act 3 with the frozen tableau that closed Act 2. He builds his tableaux powerfully, into the final climax of a Gotterdammerung-like immolation: a gesture, perhaps, towards the unlikely but unchallengeable influence that Bellini had on Wagner, who admired Norma to the extent of writing an additional aria for insertion into the score. John Mauceri apparently experimented in rehearsal with the idea of including it, but decided not to risk the anger of Bellini purists.

Even so, there are other things in this Norma that purists won't care for, especially if their expectations are conditioned by the classic Callas and Sutherland recordings. Mauceri's speeds are brisk, his colours bright and his manner sometimes brash. But he is also dynamic - you won't hear a more exhilarating command of choral belligerence - and he gets as much interest, shape and style from Bellini's routine, sine-wave accompaniment figures as they are likely to yield. He also gives secure support to his singers, who are led by Jane Eaglen making her eagerly anticipated debut in a role that some commentators would say she was destined for.

I'm not sure I'd say the same, if only because she hasn't the Mediterranean sweetness of tone to which the warrior spirit in Norma succumbs. She was apprehensive in the floating pianissimo of 'Casta diva', the number by which Normas are invariably judged, and at that critical moment the spell wasn't cast so persuasively as we had all hoped. But as the night and the war-paint wore on, she earned her place in the distinguished lineage of Normas who have also been Brunnhildes and amplified their bel canto with helden weight: Callas and Rita Hunter among them. That she looked and moved like Madame Blavatsky at a 1920s theosophist tea-dance was unfortunate but not damning. Vocally she was superlative, with an appealing vibrancy and pliant strength at its best in the duets with Adalgisa - the seconda donna sung here by

Katherine Ciesinski with a fruity fullness that was dark for the young girl Adalgisa is meant to be but wonderfully exciting. The tenor duets, alas, offered nothing comparable because the tenor, Stefano Algieri, was unwell and mimed to an off-stage cover.

Jenufa, meanwhile, has revived at Covent Garden in the Yuri Lyubimov staging which has always been well regarded for its stark, psychodramatic sense of theatre, remote from the folksy verismo that generally attaches to the piece. But seeing it again I feel less tolerant of its semaphore symbolism, especially the grave of the murdered child that occupies the front of the stage from curtain-up (when the child hasn't been born) casting the shadow of its cross onto the set.

It turns the opera into a kindertotenlied, which is relevant but limiting, and it sits uncomfortably with the choreographed masque sequences where Lyubimov has dancers scattering leaves or snow to mark the time of year: an oddly fey idea for so robust a score. Worse still, the movement is loose - the general problem with this revival. It doesn't bite; and neither does the rounded eloquence of Jiri Kout's conducting.

But there are good individual performances from Nancy Gustafson, Arthur Davies and Jan Blinkhof; and towering above them all is Anja Silja, whose Kostelnicka walks her high-wire with extraordinary presence: awesome, austere, desperate, but never beyond compassion. If the voice is white and hard, not often beautiful, it doesn't matter. Silja's Kostelnicka is a searing and uncompromising portrait. It addresses deeper needs than a conventionally pretty sound.

You could make a similar claim for Anne Evans' Isolde, which arrived this week at Covent Garden on the Welsh National Opera tour of Tristan und Isolde, except that she also happens to be a lyrical Isolde with a purity of tone that recalls the pre-war, pre-Flagstad tradition of Wagner singing, before disfiguratively heavyweight vibrato became

standard practice. Inevitably, the voice didn't sound as big at the Garden as it had in Cardiff a few weeks earlier; but it was still triumphant, and the vindication of an artist who has been studiously ignored by Covent Garden's management. That her last Royal Opera role was first Lady in The Magic Flute 10 years ago says it all. There was talk of the Garden inviting her to sing in its own Tristan, mooted for this summer, but the plans fell through and no invitation emerged; so it must have been peculiarly pleasurable for her on Monday to have taken in the cheers of an ecstatic Covent Garden audience. They were well-earned, not just by Evans but by everyone involved in what has proved a great and durable achievement; and especially by Charles Mackerras who, with this production, joins the ranks of the most eminent Wagnerian conductors of our time.

'Norma' continues Tues & Sat (041-332 9000); 'Jenufa' on Thurs (071-240 1066).