To Grange Park Opera yesterday for the premiere of their new production of Norma, with Claire Rutter making her debut in the title role.
Norma is one of those operas which is much beloved of opera lovers, but which does not crop up that regularly on our operatic stages. Partly it is a result of the difficulties of the title role, but also the rather awkward setting (Druids, Gauls and Romans) contribute. It is nowadays difficult to convincingly present groups of Druids doing rituals on the operatic stage and even harder perhaps to persuade audiences that this is drama.
The first Norma that I ever saw was on television, from La Scala with Montserrat Caballe in the title role. My abiding memory is of Caballe, swathed in yards of blue (or was it purple) material, emoting away in what looked like a 1970's brutalist concrete multistory car-park.
Not long afterwards I saw the opera at Covent Garden in a revival of an old production. I was supposed to see Caballe but in fact saw Grace Bumbry in the title role with Josephine Veasey as Adalgisa. The production was stylised historical, but no-one seemed to be taking it very seriously and it was difficult to take as drama. It didn't help that Bumbry seemed to think that she was singing Abigaille rather than Norma.
The second time I saw the production at Covent Garden it was John Cox's new production for Margaret Price. In theory this was a decent production, but it's stylised historicism did not quite gell. Price's costumes were a mistake and obviously designed for a far slimmer personage. Completely unsatisfactory, but curiously compelling for all the wrong reasons, were the leather costumes for the male druids in the chorus, these had a bondage type theme with much flesh revealed (as I said, compelling for all the wrong reasons).
Covent Garden's third attempt was a concert performance with Nelly Miriocioiou in the title role. Some attempt at drama was made by projecting designs from a past production onto a screen at the back of the stage. But this was effectively scuppered by Nelly's decision to perform in a huge ice-cream pink frock confection.
I missed Holland Park's notable attempt on the opera, again with Nelly, which was pretty traditional in style but did not really garner critical praise.
The only production that I remember with real warmth is Ian Judge's one for Scottish Opera which had Jane Eaglen in the title role. This was a real dramatic triumph, with the young Eaglen showing wonderful metal as Norma. And Judge's staging, as I remember it, created drama and used the chorus v. effectively. One notable moment was Casta Diva where the chorus prostrate themselves in front of the priestess. This was both a credible dramatic reaction and also a neat solution as to how to give Eaglen (who is not tall) dramatic prominence on a busy stage.