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Sunday, 28 October 2018

Musical drama: Bellini's Norma with Helena Dix in the title role

Giuditta Pasta as Bellini's Norma
Giuditta Pasta as Bellini's Norma,
a role she created
Bellini Norma; Helena Dix, Christopher Turner, Elin Pritchard, Joshua Bloom, Dane Lam; Chelsea Opera Group at Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 October 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Music and drama combine in a wonderfully satisfying performance of Bellini and Romani's musical drama
Whilst it is not a rarity, performances of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma (libretto by Felice Romani) are certainly not common and Chelsea Opera Group gave us a welcome chance to hear the piece in concert at the Cadogan Hall last night, 27 October 2018. Dane Lam conducted the Chelsea Opera Group orchestra and chorus with a strong cast with Helena Dix as Norma, Elin Pritchard as Adalgisa, Christopher Turner as Pollione, Joshua Bloom as Oroveso and Claire Pendleton as Clotilde.

Dane Lam conducted Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte at Opera Holland Park earlier this year [see my review] and conducted Bellini's Norma there in 2014 [see my review]. From the opening notes of the overture at Cadogan Hall he gave us an account which was lithe, propulsive and dramatic, but which had a nice flexibility when it came to Bellini's long melodic lines.

Helena Dix, who sang Abigalle in Verdi's Nabucco with Chelsea Opera Group in 2017 [see Anthony's review], is a soprano who counts in her repertoire dramatic coloratura roles like Verdi's Abigaille and Odaballa (Attila), and jugend-dramatisch roles such as Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin and the title role in Strauss' Ariadne, yet also sings the title role in Donizetti's Anna Bolena. So her Norma lacked neither power nor technique. She was also able to spin a very fine line, so that though the dramatic moments were full of impact, we also had plenty of quietly shaped long lines. Dramatically, this was a very complete performance, Dix made great use of the words (something that does not always happen with sopranos with strong coloratura technique), and was Norma in every moment, whether singing or not. She has a very expressive face, and though quite static (this was a concert performance), made the drama count. Perhaps the voice lacked the ultimate in variations of dramatic colour, but there was so much to enjoy here.

I liked the fact that when she remembered her early love of Pollione in 'Ah, bello a me ritorna' in her opening scene, she was positively girlish yet was furiously vengeful when Pollione and Adalgisa's treachery was discovered. Dix's attention to line, word and drama counted for much in the crucial opening scene of Act 2, when she contemplated killing her children. But it is where the centre of the role lines, the pair with Adalgisa and the remarkable sequence of lyric duets between Norma and Pollione which conclude the opera.

The casting of Norma presents something of a challenge. For all its position as central to the soprano repertoire, the role of Norma was first sung by a singer who may well have been a mezzo-soprano with a high extension. The first Adalgisa was a soprano who would later sing the role of Norma, yet in the duets the role of Adalgisa lies below that of Norma. Traditional casting uses a mezzo-soprano Adalgisa, but modern performances sometimes revert to soprano as did Chelsea Opera Group.

Bellini:Norma - Joshua Bloom, Adam Music, Claire Pendleton, Helen Dix, Elin Pritchard, Dane Lam - Chelsea Opera Group
Bellini: Norma - Joshua Bloom, Adam Music, Claire Pendleton, Helen Dix, Elin Pritchard, Dane Lam
Chelsea Opera Group at Cadogan Hall (Photo Chelsea Opera Group)

In Elin Pritchard they found a soprano with a lovely creamy, rich middle and lower register yet also able to go into the higher extremes with ease (she sang Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at Buxton in 2015 [see my review], Marie in La fille du Regiment there this year, and Nedda in Puccini's Pagliacci with Opera North in 2017 [see my review]). So we got occasional notes 'in alt' yet when singing with Helena Dix, Pritchard's voice successfully held its own in the lower part. Pritchard had a lovely way with the music, hearing her turn a fine phrase combining shape and tone was a real joy. The opening of 'Mira, O Norma' was spine-tingling, yet when combining with Helena Dix the two produced singing of real joy. As with Giulia Grisi, the first Adalgisa, you feel that Pritchard will inevitably move on to the title role eventually, and I look forward to hearing it.

One of the advantages of Chelsea Opera Group's performances is that they provide a welcome opportunity to hear singers in roles that they have not yet otherwise had a chance to showcase properly in London. Christopher Turner is a tenor whom we have encountered in smaller roles, he was in Opera Rara's performance of Leoncavallo's Zaza on disc and at the Barbican, see my review], but he will be doing Rodolfo for English National Opera and Idomeneo for English Touring Opera. He has a rich, dark Italianate tenor voice which is ideal for Pollione, and he sang with style and confidence producing a fine Italianate ping, with a nice evenness of tone all the way to the top. His opening Cavatina was very fine, but it was in the duets and trio where the meat really occurred. Turner sparred wonderfully with Dix in the trio, with Pritchard, which concludes Act One, and then matched Dix for intensity of tone and drama in their series of interactions which conclude the opera, Bellini replacing the classic Rossinian structure here with something more free-form which requires real attention to word and drama, something both gave us.

The role of Oroveso is something of a cipher, and whilst the decision to place Joshua Bloom alongside the men's chorus made great sense in terms of musical logistics, as much of their music is together, it mean that Bloom's thundered imprecations did not quite count as strongly in the drama as from the front stalls he was almost invisible. Yet he produced much ringing tone, and made Oroveso suitably threatening.

Clotilde is a tiny but important role (when Callas first sang Norma at Covent Garden, Clotilde was the young Joan Sutherland), and her two dialogues with Norma are crucial to the drama. Claire Pendleton is a familiar name as she is a member of the chorus of English National Opera where she also sings solo roles, and it was lovely to see her stepping into the limelight. She made Clotilde count both musically and dramatically, without ever taking the limelight. Similarly Adam Music made Flavio's contributions in the opening scene count, and you rather regretted that Bellini and Romani retired the character from the drama at this point!

Whilst this was a concert performance, all the soloists gave us a strong sense of drama and interaction. None was score-bound, and all followed Helena Dix's lead in giving full dramatic conceptions of the roles, staying in character throughout. Combined with the propulsiveness of Dane Lam's conducting, this meant that there was real thrust to the drama which made the performance strong gripping.

The chorus were in fine voice, singing with strong tone, but Bellini's writing, with its reliance on unison and homphony, leaves the singers exposed and there were moments when enthusiasm triumphed over accuracy.

This was quite a loud performance, partly from the sheer numbers on the extended Cadogan Hall stage, but also because the off-stage choruses and the banda were played on-stage. There were moments when Dane Lam should have tempered things a bit, but his soloists coped impressively and soared over everything.

As with the chorus writing, Bellini's orchestration leaves players very exposed and there were moments of rhythmic imprecision. But, the orchestra responded well to the flexibility of Lam's beat as he followed the singers, yet the music never lost its sense of forward motion either.

No performance of  Bellini's Norma perfect, how could it be. But this one was profoundly satisfying with a fine combination of technical precision, musicality and drama from the soloists, and a sympathetically flexible accompaniment from Lam and the orchestra. Concert performances of Norma have the advantage that you don't have to worry about the awkward details of Romans and Gauls on stage, and Helena Dix, Elin Pritchard and Christopher Turner ensured the we came away enthralled by Bellini and Romani's drama.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • New music in Manchester - I chat to Tim Williams, artistic director of Psappha  - my interview
  • A walk with Ivor Gurney: Sarah Connolly and Tenebrae at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Colour and movement: orchestral music by Kenneth Hesketh (★★★½) - CD review
  • Abbandonata: Italian cantatas from Carolyn Sampson and Robert King  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Vivid story telling: Schubert's Swansong with Sir John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn (★★★★) - CD review
  • Music for Windy Instruments: Sounds from the court of King James I (★★★½) - CD review
  • Independent Opera Showcase Recital at Wigmore Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Damn fine music: Stanford's Mass Via Victrix (1914-1918) receives its belated premiere  - feature
  • A visit to Italy at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Grieg, Prokofiev and Beethoven (★★★★)  concert review
  • A Bernstein Celebration - London English Song Festival - concert review
  • Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes (★★★) - theatre review
  •  Something for everyone: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from English National Opera (★★★★)  - opera review
  •  Home

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