Saturday 9 August 2014

Bel Canto drama in Bellini's Norma

Yvonne Howard and Joseph Wolverton, Bellini's Norma at Opera Holland Park; photo credit Fritz Curzon
Yvonne Howard and Joseph Wolverton 
photo credit Fritz Curzon
Bellini Norma; Yvonne Howard, Joseph Wolverton, Heather Shipp, conductor Dane Lam; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 8 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Thrillingly dramatic musical performances in this rare revival of Bellini's great bel canto opera

The challenges of the title role mean that staged performances of Bellini's Norma can be something of a rarity; the last fully staged performance at Covent Garden was in 1987, and ENO has never staged the work. Opera Holland Park first staged Norma in 2004, and they returned to the opera this year in a new production directed by Olivia Fuchs and designed by Niki Turner with lighting by Colin Grenfell. Yvonne Howard sang the title role, with Heather Shipp as Adalgisa, Joseph Wolverton as Pollione, Keel Watson as Oroveso, Rosalind Coad as Clotilde and Jung Soo Yun as Flavio. Peter Robinson conducted the opening run of performances, with Dane Lam conducting the final two with the City of London Sinfonia in the pit.. We caught the final performance of the production on August 8.

Fuchs and Turner set the piece in the present. The setting for both acts was a barbed wire fence enclosure in front of the facade of Holland Park House. This was clearly sort of the internment camp, and the Druids were a hippy-ish cult, with hints of such peoples as the Roma, who were being held under military rule by the Romans in modern army fatigues. During the overture we saw the Roman soldiers being violent to, and raping, the women and throughout the opera the sense of impending violence was palpable. The surtitles were adjusted slightly so that Romans became the enemy, and all mention of God was converted to Gaia, clearly these were an earth-mother cult. Their sacred tree was now just a blasted stump in the middle of the camp.

The advantage of this was that it gave a strong sense of context for Bellini and Romani's drama, making the background to Norma's betrayal of her people far more visible. The disadvantage was that Norma is not a political opera, Bellini and Romani were patently not interested in the political plight of the Druids (in the way that perhaps Verdi might have been), so that the music of the overture which depicts the stormy personal emotions did bad service for the background to violence and rape. Throughout the staging, Fuchs seemed a little too interested in the finer detailed mechanics of her dramatic scheme, this was a very realistic production and at times I found this a little intrusive, I would have preferred something a little more abstract. Details, such as the way Norma and Clotilde hid the children kept worrying me. But none of this really mattered as the performances from the principals were so vivid as to hold the attention throughout.

Yvonne Howard is a mezzo-soprano who has been moving into the dramatic soprano territory, counting Sieglinde amongst her roles. Whilst we think of Norma being a soprano role, there is good evidence that the first Norma (Guditta Pasta) was closer to our modern idea of a mezzo-soprano with a high extension rather than a high soprano like Joan Sutherland.  Bellini regarded the role, for all its complex passagework, as a dramatic role and it is important that drama is to the fore in any performance. Howard might not always sing with the loveliest of tone and there was the odd note which sounded under pressure, but oh boy did she make every note count. This was a deeply felt and stunningly articulated performance, using bel canto for the dramatic purposes to which it was intended.

This started from her very first entry, with Casta Diva having a strongly dramatic and desperate edge, rather than being simply lovely. When the drama got going, with the duet with Adalgisa (Heather Ship) and trio with Adalgisa and Pollione (Joseph Wolverton) in the final scene of act one, then Howard showed herself fervently dramatic. The amazing recitative at the start of act two, when Norma contemplates killing her children was gripping and heart wrenching (though Fuch's decision to stage it in a camp full of sleeping women was a distraction). Howard is a strongly mesmerising performer, and you could sense her using the music for the drama, continuing into the wonderful final sequence where Norma offers herself as sacrifice.

Joseph Wolverton was perhaps not quite such a riveting performer. He has a fine, Italianate voice with just a hint of tightness at the top. We hear Pollione mainly in duets with others, we never really get to hear his thoughts alone. Wolverton proved a sympathetic partner, impressing in the tricky opening duet with Flavio (Jung Soo Yun), and in the subsequent duets and ensembles with Adalgisa and Norma. Wolverton is not the most stylish Pollione in terms of bel canto, but he brought a certain raw power to the role and virile power particularly in the wonderful trio at the end of Act one.

Yvonne Howard and Heather Shipp, Bellini's Norma at Opera Holland Park; photo credit Fritz Curzon
Yvonne Howard and Heather Shipp
photo credit Fritz Curzon
It was lovely to hear a Norma where the roles of Norma and Adalgisa were very balanced, in terms of vocal quality. This gave a riveting sense to Adalgisa's duets with Norma and I was very impressed with the stylish way that Heather Shipp handled the more complex bel canto passagework, and the flexibility that she had in her upper voice. This made Mira O Norma a complete joy, as the two voices intertwined and balanced each other. Elsewhere, Shipp made Adalgisa's passion perfectly obvious and she was a strong third partner in the trio. Adalgisa can be role where you end up feeling irritated that the girl could be so foolish. But here Shipp managed to wring our hearts, and do so without ever going beyond the confines of Bellini's vocal line. A very fine performance.

The smaller roles were all very strongly cast. Keel Watson's darkly resonant voice made for a strongly characterised Oroveso. His was a performance which made you wish that Bellini had made the role stronger, but Watson's made every note count, particularly in the final encounter with Howard's Norma when she urges him to take care of her children. Clotilde is a relatively small role, but those with long memories remember that when Callas sang Norma in London, Clotilde was played by Joan Sutherland. Rosalind Coad held her own in the highly dramatic proceedings, and impressed with the quiet dignity she brought to the role. Jung Soo Yun as Flavio had the unenviable task of opening proceedings, with the duet with Wolverton's Pollione, and did so with aplomb and some style.

This was the second of the two performances conducted by Dane Lam, one of this year's Christine Collins Young Artists at Opera Holland Park and the assistant conductor for Norma. Lam impressed immensely with the energy he brought to Bellini's score. Bellini's orchestral writing is not the most interesting harmonically, and to make it work well the conductor needs to bring vivid excitement to every note. This Lam did, clearly directing with crisp discipline. But he also trod a nicely balanced line between being overly rigid and dictatorial and being far too indulgent to the singers. The vocal lines need space to blossom, and Lam gave them this, but always within a strong structure. In the pit, The City of London Sinfonia were on strong form, and responded to Lam with discipline and flexibility. Bellini gives the chorus plenty to do in the opera, and the Opera Holland Park Chorus did not disappoint, providing performances which were vividly energetic but still with a degree of style.

Whatever my criticisms about details (and no performance of Norma is ever completely perfect), Norma is a very tricky opera to put on. One of the reasons why it is such a rare visitor is that it is fatally easy to do badly. Opera Holland Park deserves a great deal of credit for getting so much right, having the daring and intelligence to put the work on so sympathetically. Clearly the audience responded to this vivid bel canto drama, and I do hope that we get to hear more Bellini here (surely I Puritani would work well in the setting of Holland Park House!).

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