Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Norma @ Opera Holland Park, London

19, 23, 25, 31 July, 2, 6, 8 August 2014

Yvonne Howard & Joseph Wolverton(Photo: Fritz Curzon)

Yvonne Howard & Joseph Wolverton
(Photo: Fritz Curzon)

In Olivia Fuchs’ production of Norma for Opera Holland Park, the term “camp” takes on  a new meaning. It is normally an area in the forest where the Druids are, at least in some sense, holding out against the Romans, and from which they plan to launch a counter-offensive.

In this instance, however, the Romans have in every respect captured their opponents, who are now incarcerated in a ghetto, surrounded by high, impenetrable fences. During the Overture we see Roman soldiers force the men out of the camp to labour assignments during the day, rape the women in their absence and then clock the males back in at night. With a sense of uprising in the air, the Warsaw Ghetto springs to mind, although the Roman soldiers’ uniforms show that this is clearly the modern day. Similarly, looking at the Druids’ garb, most of it would not look out of place on someone celebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge today.

If this set-up very much alters the dynamics of the piece, it does not necessarily do so in unhelpful ways. That we see the Romans control the Druids’ daily routine emphasises the sheer extent to which the  existence and way of life of the latter are under threat. In the same way, Pollione does not have to go onto his rivals’ ‘territory’ in any sense to see either Norma or Adalgisa, but has the power to place them exactly where he likes. For example, he encounters Adalgisa in Act I by ensuring she is the only person left imprisoned after everyone else is bundled off to work for the day. When we see the Druids’ shrine in the centre of the camp it is not obvious whether the fences have been built around their normal dwellings, or if they have been forced to establish a makeshift holy place in their new ‘home’. Either way, however, the camp setting gives clear direction to the themes of defiance and resistance.

Yvonne Howard and Heather Shipp put in performances of a lifetime as Norma and Adalgisa respectively, and the scene in which the latter confesses her love for a Roman is stunning, thanks to the singing and some intelligent direction. The interactions between the pair are highly natural, but there are just enough occasions when they face out to the audience (usually at a slight angle) to enable us to focus on the music and engage with the characters’ innermost feelings. Tension and release are employed both musically and dramatically so that after the highly charged moment in which Norma releases Adalgisa from her vows, Howard seems to throw in the question of who her lover is as an attempt to lighten the mood following a difficult encounter.

Howard’s voice is rich and vibrant with some thrilling hues in the lower register, and an exceptional clarity in the upper. Such a combination enables her to pull off a vast range of effects including screaming in total despair, and uttering with heart-wrenching sensitivity ‘I’m guilty’ (the performance is in Italian). Shipp’s mezzo-soprano complements Howard’s own very well, and its beautiful roundness in itself encapsulates excellent enunciation, precision and resonance.

Although some of the men get off to shakier starts, the fact that they seem to stand in the shadow of Howard and Shipp is more a reflection of the strength of that pair, rather than of any real weaknesses in their own performances. As Pollione Joseph Wolverton seems a little strained at the start, but grows as the evening progresses so that he and Howard make a formidable combination in the final scene. Keel Watson as Oroveso is a little unfocused at the start as he seems to take time to warm up, but overall, with his sturdy bass-baritone voice, he proves a highly engaging presence.

Peter Robinson’s conducting of the City of London Sinfonia is exceptional while the Opera Holland Park Chorus is in fine form, blowing the audience away as they stand in one long line, their faces positively glowing. That final effect is a consequence of Colin Grenfell’s excellent lighting designs, which also contribute to the overall attention to detail that this production shows. Although the dramatic deaths of Norma and Pollione alone would be enough to hold our attention, the experience is enhanced further by seeing Adalgisa and Clotilde (Rosalind Coad) attempting to shield the horrific sight from the eyes of Norma’s children.

Dane Lam conducts Norma on 6 and 8 August.  

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Norma @ Opera Holland Park, London