OPERA / Gorgeous humbug: Norma - Scottish Opera

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It was clearly a risk for Scottish Opera to attempt Bellini's Norma with the same singer, Jane Eaglen, who had recently been their almost-great Brunnhilde. These are two roles that, above all, need a great artist, and what is riskier still, each needs a different kind of greatness.

Eaglen is warm, deeply persuasive, passionate, fabulously musical, possessed of a towering technique. And indeed, with the somewhat boyish John Mauceri at the helm, she produced a 'Casta diva' that was an exquisite tone poem, each phrase approached just a fraction more quietly than you would have thought possible, the choral section taken much slower, so that its soprano filigree seemed to drift half-way to heaven.

But for much of the rest of the time, Eaglen was out of tune. It was strange that she sometimes attacked a note right in the centre, then, if it was repeated, shifted it sideways, as if she could not hear the orchestra properly. Nor could one call this singer a true coloraturist, which is surely one of the role's most vital qualities. Her fioriture were studied and vague rather than airborne or scalp-tingling.

There was a wonderful Adalgisa from Katherine Ciesinski; and when she joined Eaglen in the glowing thirds of 'Mira, o Norma' there were some supreme moments. The two singers balanced each other dramatically, too, with Ciesinski sensuous, languishing, flexible of body, Eaglen more economic, using glance as well as gesture.

With all the reservations, this was a delicious Norma, constantly surprising the ear with colours and spontaneities that seemed quite new-minted. The producer, Ian Judge, was the right man for the job. He not only went for a traditional style, with beautiful realistic sets - layered forest foliage and stark Roman interiors - designed by John Gunter and lustrously lit by Simon Tapping, but stressed the theatricality of this gorgeous humbug by ruling diagonal lines across the stage, putting it all on 'boards' that were themselves part of the illusion. Deirdre Clancy's costumes came from the same world of lavish fustian, providing the Druids with preposterous Mohican head-dresses and peacock crowns. The silhouette of Norma and Pollione against the flames of their self- immolation is a memorable image that we shall no doubt see again in many revivals.

With Norman Bailey as Oroveso, the opera was cast at strength. Unfortunately, the Pollione, Stefano Algieri, was ill; he walked through the part, which was sung by Bruce Rankin from a box. But Algieri is the sort of man who may fit well into this powerful ensemble when he is better. We shall see; for this is a production to return to, again and again.

In rep, Glasgow Theatre Royal (041-332 9000) to 6 May

(Photograph omitted)

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