Splendid New Production of Norma by Opera North

31/01/2012

Bellini, Norma:   Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North, Oliver von Dohnányi (conductor), Grand Theatre, Leeds, 28.1.2012 (JL)

Cast:

Norma Annemarie Kremer
Adalgisa Keri Alkema
Pollione Luis Chapa
Oroveso James Creswell
Flavio Daniel Norman
Clotilde Gweneth Ann Jeffers

Production:

Director Christopher Alden
Set Designer Charles Edwards
Costume Designer Sue Willlmington
Lighting Designer Adam Silverman

Notwithstanding the importance of the secondary roles, any production of Norma will float on the quality of the lead singer. If the soprano is found wanting in any way the whole ship could be in danger of sinking. A shortage of singers who can really cope with this demanding role may be one of the reasons why Norma is so infrequently performed in Britain. There is an intimidating history. This was implied in Opera North’s publicity: “Due to its technical difficulties, the title role of the heartbroken druid priestess is notoriously hard to cast. Having made legends out of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, Norma has always been the maker of global opera stars”.

Imagine the consternation at Opera North then, when the Company’s casted lead, American soprano, Takesha Meshé Kizar, had to withdraw dangerously late in the day. Miraculously, a substitute was found in time to go into main rehearsals last month. Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer, who had, necessarily, sung Norma before, came to Leeds fresh from a Salome in Vienna which should have boosted her stamina. She was not found wanting. Norma’s entrance comes with some recitative before launching into the opera’s most famous aria, Casta Diva, so straightaway we could get a measure of the voice. Annemarie Kremer has not a big vocal instrument and she eschewed a chandelier busting approach to the high notes and, in this aria, went for a beautifully controlled, floating sound that suited the voice as well as the very slow pace at which the aria was taken. Technically, there were clearly no worries.

Casta Diva was sung with the Druid Priestess perched rather awkwardly on a wooden chair that had been stuck a little way up a huge tree trunk that had been hoisted from the horizontal to nearly 45 degrees. The trunk is the sacred oak of the Druids and the curtain had gone up with it lying diagonally across most of the stage, the imprinted hieroglyphics giving the look of a great, felled totem pole. The people of the chorus were dressed in rustic costumes of brown and grey which matched the set as a whole. The lighting throughout the evening provided little colour relief from the browns and greys but was used to provide some dramatic shadow/silhouette effects against the tall wooden walls of the set. Under the circumstances, the sharp black Victorian coats and hats worn by Roman pro-consul Pollione and his assistant were a colour contrast, the purpose being, presumably, to lend the Romans an air of imperial authority. Some people might have misgivings about Charles Edwards’ set design, but it had the virtue of visual simplicity and therefore did not suffer the distraction that plagues so many more pretentious operatic productions.

Early on, it was clear that conductor Oliver von Dohnányi was to keep things moving with brisk tempi that gave suitable momentum to the proceedings with the exception of one slump, already mentioned, at the slower-than-average Casta Diva. Although the orchestra’s role is primarily to accompany the voices in a quintessentially Italian singers’ opera, the players clearly showed their quality and Bellini’s occasional woodwind solos were a delight.

Vocally, it is Norma’s father, arch-Druid Orveso, who is first heard and James Creswell’s splendid bass had true power and authority. Mexican Luis Chapa as Pollione has a tenor voice with very much a baritone timbre and although his top notes were not going to spine-tingle with a popular, stereotypical Italianate ring, he did have a heroic quality (although it has to be said that the role is more betraying bastard than hero).

The most substantial of the secondary roles is that of the young novice priestess, Adalgisa, for whom Pollione ditches Norma. Keri Alkema has a strong mezzo voice – more powerful than Annemarie Kremer’s which could have posed balance problems in their duetting in the second act. There were no worries here though. In music that is arguably the finest in the opera, I found the duets the performing highlight. The conductor and singers had clearly worked very hard at this and the result was moving, musical perfection.

Back to the key role. Annemarie Kremer, who was on stage for most of the time, responded to the director Christopher Alden’s body language demands with natural ability, enhancing the expressiveness of her voice to convey a great range of emotion. The result was a powerful and rounded portrayal. When going for the decibels, the voice could become hard edged, but when that happened Norma was angry – which is often – so it was appropriate.

The Chorus, which I estimated at nearly 40 strong made a forceful and well disciplined sound, aided (as were the soloists) by the high-sided set which bounced the sound direct to the auditorium.

Overall, the production had a real ensemble feel to it. There were no weak links vocally, all was slick and well rehearsed, orchestra distinguished and pacing fine. In my experience, most first nights have ensemble glitches. Here there were none.

A late, long-standing supporter of Opera North had left a bequest conditional upon it going towards a new production of Norma in homage to the great Maria Callas. This was, indeed, a fitting tribute.

Bearing in mind the rarity of Norma performances, I strongly recommend a pilgrimage to Leeds – or later to Newcastle, Nottingham, or Salford Quays (Manchester) where the production will tour. You will not be disappointed.

John Leeman

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