The English National Opera (ENO) first performed Bellini’s 1831 bel canto opera, Norma this month. Christopher Alden’s production was first performed by Opera North in 2012, which is a co-production with Die Theatre Chemnitz and has toured to Bordeaux ever since. Having never seen the opera before but familiar with the music through various recordings of lead soprano Maria Callas, I’ve learnt that there are deeply profound qualities about the music of Norma that is incomparable to other operas.
Bellini put down on paper, ‘Carve in your head in adamantine letters: Opera must make people weak, feel horrified, die through singing’ and to many composers, artists and philosophers they were heavily affected by the composer’s artistry. Schopenhauer declared his opera as ‘a tragedy of extreme perfection’ while Wagner once said ‘Bellini wrote melodies lovelier than one’s dreams.’ Russian composer, Tchaikovsky also wrote kindly of Bellini, ‘When I was still a child the emotions which his graceful melodies, always tinges with melancholy, awakened in me were so strong that they made me cry.’
Bellini’s work represents the peak of the bel canto era. What is pioneering about Bellini’s work is its overarching ability to realise serious music drama with human experience. It is no wonder that Norma’s magnificent aria ‘Casta Diva’ is known by many – it was one of the most recognised arias of the 19th century.
There are no laughs or giggles to experience in this opera, and none to be felt in the ENO’s production. Set in a remote and rural community in the mid 19th century where its people still practice ancient Druidic rites, Norma, the head of the druids, finds herself in an emotionally complicated situation, affecting her stature as a religious figurehead. Although looked up to as a chaste goddess by her people, she betrays them by having a secret lover Pollione and bores him two sons. Yet she learns from Adalgisa, priestess at the temple of Irminsul, that she had broken her sacred vow too and fallen in love with someone.
The musical dramatics come in full swing when she discovers who Adalgisa’s lover is, which causes anguish, misery and rage within Norma – so much so that she considers committing infanticide. It is this terrifying and empowering, emotional destruction that underpins Bellini’s intense score and for director, Alden it makes sense to downsize the conceptual staging for a production where the cast and compelling score take centre stage.
Charles Edwards’ woody and dry staging appears like a magnified log hut in the middle of a forest. In the middle is a large towering tree trunk that elevates toward the ceiling and down to ground. At some points in the production, the people (ENO Chorus) glorify it like a holy statue, symbolising the sanctity of their belief system, yet there’s nothing eye-catching about the staging but only the cast, music and ENO chorus.
American soprano, Marjorie Owens took on the challenging role of Norma, which 19th century German soprano, Lili Lehmann once claimed was more demanding then singing all three Brünnhildes from Wagner’s Ring Cycle’. Owens made her UK debut here and gives a refreshing yet strong Norma that captures the range of emotional struggles that Norma’s character deals with throughout. Sung to George Hall’s modest English translation, she sings fearlessly, touching on light, quiet notes from the beginning bars of ‘Casta Diva’, bursting with fiery pangs of passions in the final scenes.
Joining her, also from America, is Jennifer Holloway reprising the role of Adalgisa who is a brilliant actress. She sings with beauty, pathos and sympathy. Peter Auty performs as the womanising proconsul in Gaul, Pollione. Auty presents the lascivious truth of Pollione’s character that he hides from the priestess and druidess, providing skill and texture to his voice that is much needed in Bellini’s demanding music. Orovesco, Norma’s father, sings with rich tones by bass, James Creswell (who also performs as Sarastro in the ENO’s production of the Magic Flute) and supporting singers, Adrian Dwyer and Valerie Reid supply sensitivity and skill where needed.
Conducted by Stephen Lord, who demonstrates his aptitude for bel canto repertory, the production was dramatic in narrative and the music’s sublimity that could only come together from a solid hand (and baton) to guide the roaring and heartfelt score. The opening night permitted its ENO Chorus to take to the curtain call twice, which was well-deserved for this chorus-heavy opera. They give a phenomenal performance as excellent actors and singers. Unforgettable scenes come in the final act where Norma reveals her treachery to them, and in their pain, they fall to the ground, then abandon her. It stressed the significance of the ENO Chorus’s role at the opera house at a time where their status is being compromised and negotiated by the ENO’s management.