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 Bellini's Norma


English National Opera, London,  February 17 - March 11, 2016

Photographs by Alastair Muir, courtesy of English National Opera


This was English National Opera's first production of Bellini's Norma and was generally well received musically although enthusiasm for the production borrowed from Opera North was rather more muted.  Alan Jackson, the Society's treasurer, saw the production on February 24 and has provided the following report. 

This new production of Norma, conducted by Stephen Lord and directed by Christopher Alden has received a number of reviews along the lines of: very fine musically, in particular the Norma and Adalgisa of Marjorie Owens and Jennifer Holloway, but dull or static as regards the production. Broadly I agree with that musical assessment, but found the production unsympathetic, not so much dull as burdened with “ideas” that distracted and distorted.

The night I was there, there was a major substitution. We were told that Ms Owens was suffering from a respiratory tract infection and couldn’t sing; her place would be taken by Katrina Sheppeard making her role debut. When something similar happened many years at Covent Garden and Margaret Price was unable to sing (herself not a success on her opening night, though I believe she redeemed herself at later performances) the results were disastrous, such are the demands of this title role. I can report that Ms Sheppeard did much more than merely save the show. She provided such a confidently voiced and acted performance that I imagine she was officially covering the role and had had appropriate preparation. If she came in at short notice she was amazing. Her voice is ample and bright, and flexible enough to get round the considerable amount of coloratura involved. Forthright would describe both the vocal and dramatic aspects of her portrayal. I have two reservations. Firstly, some of the downward chromatic scales didn’t convince me – I simply didn’t hear enough notes. More seriously, I didn’t find her voice intrinsically beautiful, and a sense of vocal luxuriance is something that in my view Bellini demands. Occasionally the very top lost quality, though she interpolated a top D at the end of Act 1. But all credit for giving us two verses of the cabaletta to “Casta Diva”.

I liked Ms Holloway’s Adalgisa, which did have the necessary beauty of tone as well as flexibility and she was convincing as the younger of the two women. Peter Auty provided burnished tone (if no top C in the aria – no real loss) as the unfaithful Pollione and James Cresswell was a good if rather baritonal Oroveso. Small parts were well taken. The chorus and orchestra excelled. I thought that Stephen Lord misjudged the twin climaxes in the final scene with the tenuti too protracted – my vocal score doesn’t mark them though they have become traditional and usually I welcome something at these points. I don’t remember the “Guerra” chorus with its “Pastoral Symphony” conclusion (was all this really cut?) and I regretted the omission of Adalgisa’s verse in the Act I trio. But otherwise the performance was in safe hands.

The programme illustrations suggested that the opera was set in an Amish community wearing dreary brown garments subject to, but about to rebel against, extorting Victorian landowners clothed in frock coats and top hats. There was no suggestion of Druids or Romans despite the text. The set was dominated by a huge fallen oak trunk inside plain wooden walls that served for all the locations. The trunk was raised and lowered from time to time, seemingly operated by an onstage worker who thus overheard all the private conversations and confessions. It provided a base for a throne (actually a basic chair) and at the end it burst impressively into flames with stage smoke engulfing Norma and Pollione. The surrounding walls were ugly to look at, no doubt deliberately, but they had the great virtue of throwing out the voices into the auditorium. The one aspect of the staging that I found really convincing was the chorus’ reaction to Norma’s admission that it is she who is guilty - disbelief, then condemnation, then confusion, expertly and movingly portrayed. But otherwise much was a sad affair. Ms Sheppeard and Ms Holloway spent too much time singing while crawling around. Norma’s children were visible to others when sense demanded they were hidden. Flavio’s part was enlarged; he entered the Druid habitation in Act II along with Pollione to sexually assault an unnamed female extra (Pollione tried to impose himself on Adalgisa who thus was present for longer than Bellini envisaged). Both were clearly drunk, though while Pollione got an interview with Norma, Flavio was beaten up, castrated and killed immediately. And while I can see that having Adalgisa on stage for the final scenes had some logic, she is after all part of the community, having her cowering in a corner didn’t seem to be the best way for her to avoid attention. None of all this is particularly surprising for those who have seen previous productions by Mr Alden, but if he is drawing out psychological truths in place of natural logic they escaped me. Norma is a glorious mix of classicism and romanticism, and yes, it moves slowly at times, but I think it demands some dignity and impassioned restraint, not these accretions that distract and diminish. If the director doesn’t trust the opera to work on its own terms, please hand over the job to someone who does.  

Russell Burdekin saw the production on March 2 and has added the following comments: 

Marjorie Owens was well and in fine voice on March 2.  Otherwise I can do little more than endorse Alan's opinion both of  the good musical standards and the unhelpful and occasionally irritating production, a miss that ENO could well do without at this critical juncture. Why have some guy slowly plodding off the stage with his two walking sticks drawing attention away from the musical and dramatic buildup to the Norma/Pollione confrontation after his capture?  One has to wonder whether such infelicities have become a directorial tic, which have lost any underlying meaning they might once have had.   


The Team 

Norma - Marjorie Owens

Adalgisa - Jennifer Holloway

Pollione - Peter Auty

Oroveso - James Cresswell

Clotilde - Valerie Reid

Flavio - Adrian Dwyer


Conductor - Stephen Lord

Director - Christopher Alden

Designer - Charles Edwards

Costumes - Sue Wilmington

Lighting - Adam Silverman




© Alastair Muir

Oroveso and chorus





© Alastair Muir

Norma and children





© Alastair Muir





© Alastair Muir

Adalgisa, Norma and unnamed female harassed by Pollione and Flavio




© Alastair Muir

Norma and Pollione




© Alastair Muir

Norma and Pollione facing the funeral pyre



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