Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Guest Blogger Jamie Henderson Reports on Norma at Opera North

Please welcome new guest Taminophile blogger Jamie Henderson, known as jshenderson on Twitter, where his profile describes him as:
lover of opera, lieder, classical music, the odd musical, the occasional play and all things Whedon. Apple-addicted. Strictly Obsessed. Gleek. Also, glutton.
Jamie reviews Norma, my favorite opera, as performed by Opera North.

Bellini’s Norma
Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre, United Kingdom
February 16, 2012

Norma : Annemarie Kremer
Adalgisa: Keri Alkema
Pollione: Luis Chapa
Oroveso: James Creswell
Flavio: Daniel Norman
Clotilde: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers

Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North 
Oliver von Dohnányi, conductor
Christopher Alden, director

Staging Bellini’s Norma is, in the UK at least, not a decision that an opera company takes lightly.  The  Royal Opera House, for example, has not staged the piece for twenty-five years (two concert performances, with Nelly Miricioiu as Norma, were given some twelve years ago).  Norma has also been staged by Opera Holland Park and by Scottish Opera, but performances have hardly been abundant.

It is not too difficult to work out why the opera has been performed so rarely.  It is nothing to do with the quality of the opera itself, which is arguably Bellini’s masterpiece and is certainly his most dramatically effective and moving work. No, the main reason must be the monumental demands made of the soprano who undertakes the title role.  Created for the great Giuditta Pasta and subsequently taken by Giulia Grisi (who was in fact the first Adalgisa) the eponymous heroine is still closely associated with the towering figures in bel canto singing in the twentieth century, namely Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé.  Such singers - that is, those who can combine power with elegance, can invest coloratura filigree with feeling and purpose, and possess  stamina, dramatic stage presence and a wide vocal range - do not grow on trees.  They are certainly not the sort of sopranos that one expects to hear at Opera North.  But that is what Opera North provided for us in Annemarie Kremer, who was a quite magnificent Norma.

Kremer impressed from her very first notes - her opening recitative ‘Sediziose voci’ was imperiously delivered and  the aria itself, ‘Casta Diva’, seemed almost effortless, the repeated top notes well within her range, the voice itself beautiful in colour. The florid passages of her cabaletta (both verses) were well executed, and she capped the whole thing with a strong top C.  Impressive though she was here, she went from strength to strength as the evening progressed and met almost every demand that Bellini made of her (and a few more that he didn’t - she interpolated a top D in the act 1 finale, and a high E flat in her Act 2 duet with Pollione).  And though she had an impressive upper extension, she was no vapid nightingale.  She blended beautifully with the Adalgisa in their duets, brought power and venom (and was not afraid to dip into her chest register) to ‘Ah non tremare’ when Norma realised Polllione’s infidelity, and great pathos to the finale, in which Norma sacrificed herself to die with the man she loved, and to protect her rival Adalgisa.  

I did write that she met almost every demand.  I should mention that her voice, though well projected, was not huge; though she was always audible from the stalls, friends who were higher up in the building said she could not quite dominate the louder ensembles.  She possesses a strong but slender (not ‘fat’) instrument, which some may not consider ideal, and which would not make the same impact on the stage of the Met that it did in this much smaller theatre.  She could not - or chose not to - trill; so those threatening rising trills on ‘Adalgisa fia punita’ were not present.  Her Italian was very good, if not always crystal clear.  But overall, she was a revelation.

So was the Adalgisa, Keri Alkema, who in terms of sheer quality of voice was perhaps even more impressive.  Her middle register was extremely sumptuous, and gorgeous in quality.  Her opening phrase, ‘Deh, protegemi o Dio’ quite literally took my breath away, it was so richly sung.  She is billed as a soprano (she recently sang Mimi for Glyndebourne on Tour), and though she sang several top Cs very well, it was that glorious middle register that remains in the memory, which leads me to wonder if she might one day turn to the lyric mezzo repertory.  Having said that, Adalgisa was actually written for a soprano, though it is most often taken by mezzos.  Whatever label one applies to her, I can confirm that she was as good an Adalgisa as I’ve heard, right up there with Elina Garanca, Sonia Ganassi and Silvia Tro Santafé.

Bass James Creswell provided stentorian support as Oroveso (fortunately, he possesses a voice of good quality as well as a loud one), and Daniel Norman was an excellent Flavio, who was given more acting to do in this production than is normally the case.  The main disappointment was the raw-toned Pollione, Luis Chapa, though he certainly threw himself into the role.  Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was in croaky voice as Clotilde.

Great work too from the chorus and orchestra of Opera North, and the excellent conductor Oliver von Dohnányi, who performed the score with very few cuts, as far as I could tell.  He led a too sprightly account of the overture, but the opera itself was highly dramatic and had forward momentum but was also singer friendly - there was no sense of the performers being hurried along, or being unable to savour a musical phrase.  

A word or two about the production.  It has raised a few eyebrows.  Christopher Alden doesn’t do traditional, so there were no Druids or Romans in sight.  Rather, Norma’s community appeared to be some sort of cult and looked rather similar to nineteenth century American pioneers, and the one set was the rather plain interior of a barn.  Pollione and Flavio were portrayed as rather ghastly intruders in this community (which of course they are), and were dressed in late nineteenth century style black suits and top hats.  Taken on its own terms, the concept worked well and certain scenes were especially effective: the Norma-Adalgisa ‘Oh rimembranza’ duet, for instance, where they writhe in each others arms as they both recall their memories of their lover, Pollione; and the final scene, where Norma is shunned by her people when they realise her hypocrisy.  One is unlikely to get such emotionally raw moments in more traditional stagings of bel canto works, sadly.

So, an opera which strikes fear into the heart of many international companies has been met head on - triumphantly - by Opera North.  I can only hope that the excellent reviews, and near-full houses, will encourage them to make further forays into the bel canto repertoire, and that they will have both Annemarie Kremer and Keri Alkema on speed-dial.

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