Thursday, 18 February 2016

English National Opera's first Norma

ENO Norma Marjorie Owens (c) Alastair Muir.jpg
ENO Norma - Marjorie Owens - (c) Alastair Muir.jpg
Bellini Norma; Marjorie Owens, Peter Auty, Jennifer Holloway, James Creswell, dir: Christopher Alden, cond: Stephen Lord; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 17 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Notable first performance of Bellini's opera by ENO, with a striking assumption of the title role from the young American soprano

English National Opera's first ever production of Bellini's Norma opened at the London Coliseum on 17 February 2016 at a time when the company is particularly in the spotlight. Famously considered one of the peaks of the soprano repertoire, Bellini's opera has not been seen much on the stage in London recently. Covent Garden last staged it in the 1990's for Margaret Price, with only concert performances more recently and it has been left to Opera Holland Park to fly the flag (in 2004 with Nelly Miricioiu, and in 2015 with Yvonne Howard). 

ENO's new production was originally seen at Opera North in 2012. Christopher Alden directed, with set designs by Charles Edwards and costumes by Sue Willmington, lighting by Adam Silverman. The young American soprano Marjorie Owens sang Norma, with Peter Auty as Pollione, Jennifer Holloway as Adalgisa and James Creswell as Oroveso. Stephen Lord, the music director of Opera Theatre Saint Louis, conducted.

The challenge for any director is to find a setting for Bellini's opera which provides the right dramatic intensity of the struggle between Gauls and Romans (one that with the benefit of hindsight we know to be doomed), without the possibly risible elements that arise from doing it in togas. Ian Judge's 1990s production for Scottish Opera is possible the most successful I have seen, taking a slightly abstract view of the whole and clearly influenced visually by the painting The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe by Henry and Hornel. At Opera Holland Park in 2014, Olivia Fuchs chose to set the piece in a modern-day occupied country in a production full of contemporary resonances and a believable link between the 'Druid's religion and their resistance to the occupying power.

ENO Norma Peter Auty (c) Alastair Muir
ENO Norma - Peter Auty
(c) Alastair Muir
Christopher Alden's production seemed to be based in a 19th century Amish-like sect of wood workers and foresters, with the 'Romans' marked out as capitalist exploiters; both Peter Auty's Pollione and Adrian Dwyer's Flavio were dressed in smart 19th century frock coats and top hats in marked contrast to the backwoods 'Gauls'. Charles Edwards set was an impressive yet simple wood clad box (admirably assisting the singers), with a huge tree trunk into which the 'Druids' carved runic like figures and which, thanks to a system of pulleys, was raised and lowered. This formed the centre-piece of the 'Gauls' cult which seemed to involve imbibing narcotic fumes to induce a trance. For my taste, Alden was a little too interested in the minutiae of the cult, with a great deal of business around the tree, the narcotics, a bible like book and a significant use of axes. And visually the beauties of the set did not carry over into the depressingly sludge coloured costuming.

I think the production would have been stronger if it had been more abstract, but Christopher Alden's productions are rarely discreet. This was full of his usual trademarks including extremes of behaviour, a mistrust of the stage directions which was almost wilful and a sense of expressionist drama which, at its best, can heighten the musical experience. At the London Coliseum we have recently seen and heard how Christopher Alden's approach can work wonders with composers like Janacek, but I was less convinced by his taking this approach to Bellini. Too often the stylised behaviour and intense violence on stage seemed at odds to the music in a way which was distracting rather than producing creative dialogue.

As Norma, Marjorie Owens displayed a big, bright voice with an admirable freedom throughout the range, with only a hint of tightness at the very top which is entirely attributable to the effects of a prominent first night. She is a soprano in the mould of Jane Eaglen (whom I heard as Norma with Scottish Opera), and Rita Hunter (whom I only heard on record in the role). Currently she is singing the title roles in Aida and Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, plus jugend-dramatisch roles such as Senta (Der fliegende Hollander).
ENO Norma Marjorie Owens, Peter Auty and ENO Chorus (c) Alastair Muir
ENO Norma - Marjorie Owens, Peter Auty and ENO Chorus (c) Alastair Muir

Norma is a big sing and the soprano is rarely off the stage and much of the drama is developed in a series of duets and trios. But the challenge for a soprano like Owens is not just the stamina required but to be able to sing the fioriture cleanly, evenly and expressively. Owens managed this with creditable honours. Her opening cavatina and cabaletta (which starts with the famous 'Casta diva') showed that Owens could spin a strong line which was not a little elegant and combine power with a sense of the shape of Bellini's music. Perhaps the passage-work was not quite pin-point but it was damn fine.

ENO Norma Jennifer Holloway and James Creswell (c) Alastair Muir
ENO Norma - Jennifer Holloway and James Creswell
(c) Alastair Muir
Another challenge of this role is to marry up the music and text with an intensity of purpose (something which Callas demonstrated brilliantly). Owens showed that she could do this, here scene where she contemplates killing her children was viscerally intense with every note counting, despite some ludicrous axe waving which was required of her by Alden. Elsewhere, I sometimes felt that a care for the beauty of line took precedence, and wanted her to perform with a bit more risk and a bit more bite. She enunciated George Hall's new translation admirably, but could have relished the text more. All in all this was a notable assumption and a performance which will certainly deepen and develop.

Jennifer Holloway is a lyric mezzo-soprano who has been seen at the London Coliseum as Musetta (La Boheme) and Orlovsky (Die Fledermaus). Not a bel canto specialist, she brought a lyric warmth to the role of Adalgisa and a nice intensity which chimed in with Alden's production. She managed to create a sense of youth without seeming too Mumsy yet not compromising the warmth of her tone. Not all the passage-work was free from smudging, but she combined well with Marjorie Owens in the duets. At the moment some bits seemed a little careful, but there were enough moments of magic to make me suspect that this partnership will flourish.

Peter Auty's Pollione was more of an archetype than a real person. Both Auty and Dwyer spent far more time on stage than Bellini might have expected, providing angry, casually exploitative presences. Unfortunately rather than seeming threatening, much of this verged on risible posturing. Auty sang Pollione nobly and strongly, providing a firmness of purpose in the great trio (with Owens and Holloway) which concluded Act One. Yet it was a performance which did not quite spark to anger, and the final denouement with Owens seem solidly creditable, but lacking just that edge of intensity.

ENO Norma Felix Warren, Samuel Murray and Marjorie Owens (c) Alastair Muir
ENO Norma - Felix Warren, Samuel Murray and Marjorie Owens
(c) Alastair Muir
James Creswell was an incisive and commanding Oroveso, dominating his fellow 'Gauls' yet singing with a sense of shape and purpose. Valerie Reid as Clotilde was certainly not the callow girl that Clotilde usually is, and Reid brought a wonderfully fierce intensity to her portrayal. Adrian Dwyer as Flavio sang his duet with Auty's Pollione with fine style, so it was a shame that he was disembowelled by the 'Gauls' for his pains! Felix Warren and Samuel Murray were Norma’s rather intense two children.

The chorus were on stunning form and were rightly applauded at the end. They brought a strength and intensity to the choruses which is necessary to make the 'Gauls' believable in their anger, the chorus also brought a sense of belief in the production so that they invested Alden's detailed action with real purpose.

This was a big boned, traditional performance, with Stephen Lord conducting an up front, sometimes loud, account of the score. There was no hint of period style (such as Charles Mackerras might have brought to the performance) and no thought at re-thinking the voice types and relationships such as happened at Cecilia Bartoli's Salzburg performances of the opera. Within these parameters, Lord and the orchestra were were fine accompanists of the singers, and brought out the marches in stirring fashion.

George Hall's admirably straightforward translation was clear and direct, though it did not quite get rid of that sense of strangeness at hearing Bellini in English. And the performance made me realise quite how intimately Bellini's music is bound up into the sound and the poetics of the Italian libretto.

I do not wish to decry the performances at the London Coliseum, and  I realise that the exigencies of casting particularly in English make the perfect cast difficult to achieve. But at a time when English National Opera is under such close scrutiny, and at time when there is a sense of questioning as to exactly what the company is for, it was a shame that three of the leading roles in the opera and the conductor were cast with Americans.

It was wonderful to see bel canto back at the London Coliseum, the serious operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti are no where near frequent enough visitors. I do hope that this production of Norma returns soon as I feel that it has the potential to grow and develop.

An edited version of this review appears on

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