United Kingdom Bellini, Norma: Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia, Opera Holland Park Chorus / Peter Robinson (conductor), London, 25.7.2014 (RB)
Norma: Yvonne Howard
Adalgisa: Heather Shipp
Pollione: Joseph Wolverton
Oroveso: Keel Watson
Clotilde: Rosalind Coad
Flavio: Jung Soo Yun
Director: Olivia Fuchs
Designer: Niki Turner
Bellini’s Norma is a masterpiece of the belo canto repertoire and the title role is one the most vocally demanding soprano parts in the whole of opera. The role itself has become associated with Maria Callas who gave a number of stunning performances. Norma’s opening aria Casta Diva was one of Callas’ signature arias so she casts an intimidating shadow over the part.
Bellini’s librettist, Felice Romani, sets the action in Roman occupied Gaul 50 years before the birth of Christ. In this imaginative production, Opera Holland Park transports the action to the 20th Century in the middle of a war zone where soldiers in camouflage fatigues are guarding an encampment surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The local population look down at heel and are clearly subject to abuse by the invading forces: we see some of the soliders using rape as a weapon of war during the overture (a very daring and visually shocking scene), getting drunk and kicking around beer cans. The production does not identify who the oppressed people and their oppressors are – my guess would be that the action is set somewhere in the Balkans. In the Second Act, a tent is erected on stage where Norma’s children are sleeping and burning braziers are lit adding to the atmosphere as the fires of rebellion are kindled. The overall conception was quite brilliant, and the costumes were spot on – my only quibble was with the scenic backdrop behind the wire fence which was bland.
Any production of Norma stands or falls with the soprano performing the title role and Opera Holland Park have clearly found a superb advocate in Yvonne Howard. She has sung a number of vocally demanding roles including Sieglinde and she did a superb job handling the opera’s considerable vocal challenges. She also did an excellent job transforming herself into character of Norma and in her heightened and fluctuating emotional states: in the beginning she wants to soothe her people and appease the occupying forces but when she finds out that the Army Commander no longer loves her and has shifted his affections to Adalgisa she becomes a cauldron of jealousy and anger before making the ultimate act of sacrifice at the end. Casta Diva had a gorgeous soft grained tonal beauty and the emotional climax to the aria really got under the skin and was deeply affecting. Given the non-stop succession of vocal hurdles, Howard was not completely at ease with some elements of the score e.g. the coloratura in the second aria but the high notes were thrilling and the quality of the singing was uniformly strong throughout.
Heather Shipp and Joseph Wolverton also did an excellent job in the roles of Adalgisa and Pollione. Shipp did well in the duets at the end of the first Act – first with Wolverton and then with Howard – blending well with both performers and doing a splendid job with the composer’s vocal pyrotechnics. Wolverton’s voice has a very Italiante quality that was highly suited to the role of Pollione and he sang in an intensely expressive way soaring up effortlessly into the upper register. Keel Watson took on the role of Oroveso and he did a good job rallying the townsfolk: he sang with full throated vocal authority.
Peter Robinson kept a tight grip on proceedings throughout the evening. The opening of the overture was arresting and charged and the transition to the more lyrical material was seamless. The flute solo during Casta Diva was exquisite while I loved the sense of emotional turmoil conjured by the strings in the duet between Adalgisa and Pollione. The militaristic number in Act 2 was well handled as one became caught up in the jingoistic fervour of the townsfolk. The Chorus of Opera Holland Park were very strong in the vocal ensembles and they also acted their parts brilliantly: we see them first as squaddies brutalising the local women and then as a rebellious group of local townsfolk intent on exacting revenge.
Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and highly imaginative production – much more daring and interesting than some of the rather safe productions which have been emerging from other UK top opera venues – and bravo to Yvonne Howard.