A Sometimes Confusing Yet Often Rewarding Norma

 FranceFrance Bellini: Norma, Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, Choeur de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux, John Fiore (conductor), Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, 25.5.2015 (JMI)


Norma: Elza Van Den Heever
Pollione: Andrea Caré
Adalgisa: Jennifer Holloway
Oroveso: James Cresswell
Clotilde: Marie Karall
Flavio: Daniele Maniscalchi


Production: Opera North and Theater Chemnitz
Direction: Christopher Alden
Sets: Charles Edwards
Costumes: Sue Wilmington
Lighting: Adam Silverman

The opera season in Bordeaux has come to an end with Norma and the debut of Elza Van Den Heever in the title role. She always finds an opportunity to return to this theatre where she first sang seven years ago, but her decision to take on the role of Norma reminds me of the comment from the Abate in Andrea Chénier when asked about the King: “Fu male consigliato.”

This production by Christopher Alden had its premiere in Leeds in January 2012. The action is brought up to the mid-nineteenth century and set in a rural community, apparently in Britain; according to Mr Alden’s program notes, this is based on his finding that there are still some British communities that follow Druid cults. The libretto actually places the action in Gaul under the Romans, so these transpositions create a disconnect between what we see and what we hear. There is one set for the entire opera, with metal walls and a huge tree trunk on which the Druids make their inscriptions. The so-called Romans – dressed in top hats and tails – are tax collectors.

As always happens with Christopher Alden, there are “originalities” that only cause more confusion. In the overture we meet Oroveso who is working in the trunk while Norma and her two children walk on stage. The libretto assumes that these children are Norma’s secret and hence Oroveso’s surprise at the end of the opera when Norma reveals their existence. Mr. Alden has decided that doesn’t matter and, in fact, the children reappear in the scene of Norma and Adalgisa as well as in the trio of the priestesses with Pollione. Another Alden originality consists of having Pollione and Flavio attend the ceremony of the Druids where Norma sings “Casta Diva.” Pollione is also on stage while Adalgisa sings her recitative in which she refers to a deserted place.

Oroveso is always on stage with an axe in his hand, so there can be little doubt that  he knows perfectly well what has happened between his daughter and Pollione. To complete the cleverness, the duet between Norma and Adalgisa practically becomes a lesbian number. At least I thought so, and so did my friends seated nearby. Finally, Mr. Alden stages the trio that closes Act I with Pollione sitting on a chair while Norma walks over other chairs and Adalgisa rolls on the floor. But there’s no question that my opinion is not shared by everybody: this staging won an award for best opera production in England in 2012.

John Fiore was in charge of the musical direction, and his work was somewhat irregular. His tempos tended to slow down in Act I, where his conducting was unconvincing. Everything was much more careful and delicate in the second part of the opera. The orchestra gave a solid performance, but I found them below the standard set on previous occasions.

As I mentioned, the main interest of this performance was the presence of Elza Van Den Heever as Norma. This singer has many positive qualities that are enabling her to make an important career. Among them I would mention her ample and attractive voice, which she handles very well, and her impressive dramatic temperament. The problem is that Norma demands a genuine soprano, which Elza Van Den Heever is not: rather, she is a Falcon. Her interpretation was compelling as the score moved through the middle range, but her top notes were tight, when they were not simply shouted. I think she is a very interesting singer, but I also think that Norma is not a character for her.

Italian tenor Andrea Caré as Pollione left me with the same impression as a few months back at Barcelona’s Liceu. His voice is appealing but not always very natural. He visibly struggled in the opening scene, where he avoided the top notes, but he improved in the second part of the opera.

American mezzo soprano Jennifer Holloway was an acceptable Adalgisa, with a rather reduced middle range but better at the top. James Cresswell gave life to Oroveso and did well, though his voice is too light for the character. In fact, he sounded more like a baritone than the required bass.

In the supporting characters the best singing came from Marie Karall as Clotilde. Tenor Daniele Maniscalchi as Flavio was a good actor but weaker in vocal terms.

José M. Irurzun



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