Simon Benger reviews Opera North’s Norma at the Grand Theatre, Leeds
A couple of days before the premiere of Christopher Alden’s Norma, I received an Opera North newsletter containing a video interview with the production’s costume designer Sue Willmington. In it, she explained that the production team had decided to relocate Bellini’s tale of desire and Roman-Gaulean conflict to mid-19th-century America.
High priest Oroveso’s Druid cult would be a rural pagan community, while Proconsul Pollione and his Roman pals would be Victorian land owners. The tree-loving druids wouldn’t actually be living in their beloved forest of Irminsul (their home in Bellini’s score), but instead would be in an isolated village, the focal point of which would be the trunk of a giant fallen tree, present on stage at all times. It sounded interesting.
Cut to Saturday night, Act One, halfway through the overture – the curtains rise, and there, indeed, is the aforementioned giant tree trunk in the middle of the stage, covered in druidic symbols and housed in a set that’s been made to look like a mill (set designer Charles Edwards must have had a run-in with Friends of the Earth during planning – the set comprised more wood than a Swedish sauna).
Throughout the performance, the trunk is used in a variety of ways ranging from an item of worship to Norma’s throne and, finally, a funeral pyre. It has a strange sort of magnificence about it, and is tied in to what Henrietta Bredin writes in the programme about the attempts of the Romantic movement in the 19th century to reconnect with nature and the concurrent resurgence of interest in paganism.
‘Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer’s Norma was highly-strung and felt constantly on the brink of an explosion’
I did, however, find myself wondering whether or not Bellini’s story actually translated all that well to this new landscape.
Perhaps some introductions are required. Norma is a Druid priestess in Gaul during the Roman occupation. She’s revered by her clan for her abilities of foresight – and her followers are particularly chuffed with her for prophesying an end to their enslavement at the hands of their oppressive Roman masters. They crave a return to their pure and untainted forest life, and particularly wish to be rid of Pollione, who’s been a bit of a git to them.
Unfortunately, somewhere down the line, Norma seems to have forgotten the party manifesto and has had two children by Pollione – a detail she’s conveniently forgotten to mention to the rest of her clan.
To make matters worse, Pollione has taken a shining to Adalgisa, a young temple virgin, who, at the end of Act One, decides it would be best to let Norma know that she quite likes him, too, and that there’s already been some heavy petting.
As the Druid revolt starts to mount, it’s announced that Pollione is being sent back to Rome to be replaced by an even more cruel leader. Growing more and more distressed, Norma starts to entertain murderous thoughts. She first attempts to murder her two children, but can’t go ahead with it, then considers killing herself before deciding it’s Pollione who should be getting the axe – and denounces him to the Druids (by finally letting them in on her little secret).
In doing so, however, she openly declares her own guilt, and is condemned to death – a fate she accepts gracefully. Only through this display of Norma’s virtue does Pollione remember why he was in love with her in the first place, and he joins her on her funeral pyre. Barely the most practical solution, I’m sure you’ll agree, but 10 out of 10 for drama.
‘Some curious directorial decisions were made, and the Appalachian setting, with reference to the original story, was questionable’
The role of Norma is renowned as possibly the hardest in the whole soprano repertoire, and Bellini’s writing requires not only a decent set of lungs but also a huge range.
Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer’s Norma was highly-strung and felt constantly on the brink of an explosion. The raw passion of Kremer’s performance made up for moments of imprecision, where the elegance of the Bel canto style was occasionally abandoned, preference given to vocal power.
Pollione was sung by Mexican tenor Luis Chapa, who sounded at times a little strained but grew into the part in Act Two.
In a work abounding with duets between Norma and the main supporting role of Adalgisa, Keri Alkema, as the latter, perhaps didn’t offer much in way of contrast to Kremer’s voice – but she did create a cleaner, more delicate sound than the lead.
Generally the sound of these three was excellent, but their interaction was curiously touchy-feely, and at times bordered on the uncomfortable. There was lots of groping going on (mainly between Norma and Adalgisa), as well as endless amounts of rolling around on the floor in what can only be described as moments of emotional climax. It felt as though Alden had instructed them to simply act as lusty as possible, and, while at times this was appropriate, at others it was just daft. It also took something away from the drama, which, requiring the audience’s full attention, was too often hidden behind such odd distractions.
Elsewhere, American bass James Creswell was impressive as Oroveso – he had real presence throughout, despite being fairly limited in opportunities to show it – while Daniel Norman in the role of Pollione’s laddish sidekick Flavio sounded excellent on the few occasions he was required to sing in the first act. (For almost all of the second, his character was either trying to have his way with Druid maidens or staggering about drunk, and therefore not singing.)
Musically speaking, as a whole the performance was impressive – conductor Oliver von Dohnányi and the Orchestra of Opera North never put a foot wrong – and this was a visually striking production with lots of excellent singing. My only reservations would be that it seems some curious directorial decisions were made, and the Appalachian setting, with reference to the original story, was questionable. The tree trunk, however, did not disappoint.
Norma is at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, until 17 February, then tours to Nottingham Theatre Royal (22-25 February), Salford Quays The Lowry (29 February – 3 March) and Newcastle Theatre Royal (7-10 March).
Photo (Keri Alkema as Adalgisa and Annemarie Kremer as Norma) © Alastair Muir