Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Norma @ Coliseum, London

17, 20, 24, 27 February, 2, 7, 11 March 2016


James Creswell
(Photo: Alastair Muir)

Christopher Alden’s production of Norma, which appeared for Opera North in 2012 and now comes to the Coliseum for English National Opera’s first ever staging of the work, moves the action from ancient Gaul to nineteenth century America. In the original the Druids are planning rebellion from their sacred forest, but in Alden’s version the setting is a barn or meeting house. As we see the Druids or workers go through some form of clocking on process, it seems as if the fragile peace settlement has seen the Romans or capitalists give them work, but at the price of their (either literal or virtual) enslavement.

This meeting room would appear to be one concession that the Romans have given to the Druids as a way of keeping rebellion at bay. Within it the latter have created their own point of worship (an equivalent to the Temple of Irminsul) in the form of a tree, which they carve with Runes and hoist high over the course of the opera. The high wooden walls of Charles Edwards’ set create an oppressive area for the drama to unfold in, and perhaps signify a capitalist taming of the natural forest.

The difficulty is that once the overall premise has been established, the large Spartan set does not prove a particularly conducive area for playing out all of the dynamics of the scenario. The sanitised setting deprives the scene in which Norma sings ‘Casta diva’ of much of its mystical allure, while the use of a single area throughout robs the opera of much visual and emotional variation. This forces actions that do not really make sense to be inserted in order to maintain interest levels. For example, the chorus sing ‘Guerra, guerra’ while beating and castrating Flavio (Adrian Dwyer) directly beneath their shrine-like tree. Even accepting that the space should not always be interpreted literally, this seems at odds with their subsequent horror that a Roman (Pollione) should actually be in their sacred place.

Alden’s directorial approach tends to encourage us to think rather than feel, although many of his touches are certainly intelligent. In particular, the periodic casting of huge shadows of Norma’s children on the wall provides a telling reminder of her past and of the burden she still carries. However, key encounters are micro-managed with movements that symbolise aspects of the relationships involved, and these hinder our ability to feel for the characters. For example, the scene that includes ‘Va crudele’ and ‘Vieni in Roma’ sees Pollione and Adalgisa spending too long on opposite sides of the stage (he reclining on a chair, she caressing the sacred tree). When they do move towards and away from each other the actions, which can include walking backwards and sliding, feel totally measured out and devoid of any sense of genuine interaction. Seeing a gesture represent a feeling, emotion or point is not as powerful as having that emotion rendered naturally before us.

Strong use is made of symbols so that Adalgisa removes a piece of linen wound around her body as she reignites her passion for Pollione, and Norma and Oroveso subsequently tear and bury it. This signifies the shedding of Adalgisa’s vows, but in an opera that explores where one’s loyalties should lie it could also represent the mantle of responsibility. Things are not helped, however, by having a third person present during key encounters, with Oroveso remaining onstage throughout Act I. He is generally an all-seeing presence and only intervenes at key moments, such as offering Norma an axe when she confronts Pollione over his love for Adalgisa. As such, his physical actions are not themselves distracting, but the simple presence of a third person destroys, for example, the intimacy between Norma and Adalgisa as they open up to each other.

The finale is the one occasion when we can appreciate both the intelligence of the staging and feel its power for ourselves. As Norma commits herself to being sacrificed we see the chorus fainting or removing their ragged shawls to create the pyre. As they go on to see the love that she and Pollione share, however, they take these back as if to suggest that they accept the necessity of the sacrifice, but hardy wish to support it.

If the staging has its share of weaknesses, the evening’s musical credentials are stronger.  Stephen Lord conducts admirably, while Marjorie Owens, who is making her UK, ENO and role debut, is thoroughly compelling in the title role. Her voice is rich and nuanced, and has the strength both to sustain itself for the entire evening, and paradoxically to convey the greatest sense of softness when required. As Adalgisa, Jennifer Holloway’s soprano provides an excellent contrast by possessing many of the same attributes as Owens’, but having a less direct and more spiritual edge. At times, it seems as if her very voice positively weeps. Peter Auty’s tenor rings out as Pollione, while James Creswell’s bass is brilliantly assertive in the role of Oroveso. As a result of the excellent musicality, the evening is ultimately a success. The experience, however, might have been more overwhelming if the cast had been entirely able to complement their excellent vocal performances with emotions that seemingly came from the heart, rather than having to adopt a plethora of dictated actions and gestures.

On opening night at the curtain call, after all of the principals and production team had taken their bows, Christopher Alden offered the ENO Chorus once more to the audience, who responded with a standing ovation. On this night, as on so many others, they certainly proved what an asset they are to the company.

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Norma @ Coliseum, London