Norma, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2016Posted on 18 February 2016
Of all operas in the first half of the nineteenth century, Bellini’s Norma was one of the greatest, widely admired by composers and having a profound effect on Wagner. Yet the ENO has never before put it on stage, for one simple reason. It requires an extraordinary soprano who can combine enormous power with vocal agility and heroic breath control for those long phrases. In American soprano Marjorie Owens, who has sung Aida at the Met, they have found the power, and she renders these performances unmissable.
The story itself is based on a play by Alexandre Soumet produced in April 1831 with the opera, to an excellent libretto by Felice Romani, following in December of the same year. The essence of the play, titled Norma ou l’infanticide, is that a Roman proconsul has captured the heart of a Celtic high priestess with whom he has two children, and is abandoning her for a novice. The ensuing conflict between natural chthonic magic and outside military force finds brilliant expression in Euripides’ Medea, and like that play Soumet’s drama has Norma kill her own children.
The opera is slightly different, with Norma and her Roman ex-lover, Pollione consumed by flames at the end, though something unexpectedly nasty happens to Pollione’s Roman friend Flavio in this production. Quite what I shall not say, but it is no secret that director Christopher Alden has transferred the action from ancient Gaul to a semi-independent rural community in nineteenth century America, with the Romans Pollione and Flavio as top-hatted, liquor-drinking, tax-collecting gents from the Federal government. This works well, but I do wish Alden would not embellish it with strangely contrived movements as if these country folk belong in a madhouse, and with Norma’s father Oroveso as an axe-wielding, omniscient fool who is somehow entirely powerless.
These quibbles aside this is musically vibrant stuff with Ms Owens expressing Norma’s vocal lines with huge power and marvellous intonation. As the novice priestess Aldagisa, American Jennifer Holloway sang with a heartfelt mezzo, contrasting beautifully with Norma in their duets, James Cresswell sang Oroveso with a bass strength properly at odds with the strange stage persona he was given by the director, and Peter Auty gradually acquired strength and commitment in the tenor role of Pollione.
Beautifully sensitive conducting by Stephen Lord, who clearly feels for the nuances of Bellini’s music, and terrific singing from the chorus, who were given a standing ovation in appreciation of their current contractual difficulties. All performed in English, of course, in a rather fine singing translation by George Hall.
Performances continue on various dates until March 11 — for details click here.