Music: Vincenzo Bellini
Director: Christopher Alden
Conductor: Oliver von Dohnanyi
Reviewer: Hannah Hiett
The Public Reviews Rating:
Opera North’s production of Norma is an astonishing new take on Puccini’s 1839 classically inspired tragedy. Charles Edward’s set was a minimalist stroke of genius, off-set by striking lighting designed by Adam Silverman. The aesthetic of the production cast the druidic Gauls as 19th century peasant farmers in revolt against the oppression of the occupying Romans, who were presented as bureaucratic gentleman landowners. This choice of setting gave the story a distinctly Marxist slant and brought the anger of an oppressed people into much closer proximity with the present day. The stage was walled high with greying wooden planks, creating an intensely claustrophobic space with the sense of a nineteenth century rural dwelling. A forty foot log was suspended over the stage from thick ropes and branded with mystic runes – the ever present earthly representation of the druid god Irminsul, acting as a focal point for the characters expressions of romantic anguish.
The opening music of the first act served as a taste of the passion and drama to come in the next two and a half hours, inviting the audience to settle into the world of the story. Bellini’s tragic Norma is the tale of a druid priestess (Annemarie Kremer) who betrays her people by falling in love with a Roman proconsul, Pollione (Luis Chapa). The pair have two children together and, when the narrative begins with Pollione declaring his love for a new woman, shades of Sophocles’ Medea are cast over their future.
However, Bellini’s take on the classic theme of the forsaken lover is heroic, rather than vengeful and Norma decides to sacrifice herself rather than punish her innocent children and the blameless Adalgisa (Keri Alkema). The highlight of the first act is Adalgisa’s confession to Numa that she has broken her vow of chastity and fallen in love. Unaware that Adalgisa’s lover is her own Pollione, Numa empathises and releases Adalgisa from her vows. The scene is filled with pathetic irony and the sensuality and emotional intensity between the performers parallel expression of love is breath-taking.
The second act was similarly fraught with passion which overwhelmed the melodramatic nature of the operatic form. Norma’s sacrifice and her plea for the protection of her children spoke with a universal love that transcended the barriers to genuine emotion presented by the highly stylised gesture and movement traditional to opera. The supporting cast were excellent too and their massed anger against their Roman oppressors was expressed with a quiet menace that transformed strikingly into despair and anger at Numa’s selfless confession of sacrelidge when she offers herself as a human sacrifice.
There were moments throughout the performance when the choice of musical composition was troubling. Anguished scenes were frequently accompanied by music that seemed better suited to a moment of triumph or gaiety and detracted from the emotional weight of the moment. However, there were highlights in which the music and the story harmonised perfectly, in particular Numa’s famous aria, Casta Diva, in which she prays to the moon goddess for peace between the Gauls and the Romans.
Overall, if there were weaknesses in Opera North’s production of Norma they were well disguised by the power of the story and the powerful vocal expression of the cast. An excellent, beautifully staged and moving production – well worth a visit.
Photo: Alistair Muir
Runs until Saturday 3rd March
Opera North: Norma – The Lowry, Salford,