For too long has Norma languished in the hinterland of opera repertoire.
Since its great and defining revival in 1948, Bellini’s masterpiece has reclaimed some ground but, in the UK at least, the work is still overshadowed by its star vehicle reputation, and performances remain few and far between.
Kudos then to English Touring Opera for marking their 30th Anniversary year with this concert production. There may be fewer theatrical demands but a lack of staging itself presents new challenges: namely how to convey a sense of the antique context to modern-day audiences. James Hurley is wise in keeping movement and gesture to a minimum but within these limitations his direction communicates the drama of the piece effectively.
It helps that Felice Romani’s libretto presents such a timeless and universal predicament. The basic narrative would be just as relevant in a contemporary episode of Eastenders as it is in Roman-occupied Gaul circa 50 BC a spurned and revengeful woman discovers her lover to have been two-timing with her best mate it’s just that Norma and Adalgisa are Druid priestesses and Pollione is their Roman proconsul.
Norma is notoriously difficult to sing but Yvonne Howard delivers the part admirably. Like many of the great Normas of the past, Howard began her career as a mezzo, and this is still apparent from her voice well endowed in the middle register with a tendency towards shrillness and exaggerated vibrato at the top but her phrasing is neat and she floats each line with style. Dramatically, too, she is impressive, capturing both the character’s matronly strength and tender vulnerability.
Meanwhile Alwyn Mellor sings a warm and well-rounded Adalgisa, and there is notable support from Helen Johnson as Clotilde, but the male parts were on the whole less successful. Piotr Lempa’s resonant bass made a fine Oroveso but Charne Rochford was underpowered as Flavio, and Justin Lavender lacked the vocal stamina and dramatic gravitas essential for Pollione.
Perhaps the greatest praise should be lavished on the orchestra. Their account, under Michael Rosewell’s baton, was both crisp and spacious, maintaining a strong sense of momentum while highlighting the delicate cello and woodwind contribution. Bellini’s score is sometimes criticised for its wavering arpeggios and rumty-tum rhythms but here it was revealed as a rare and exquisite beauty.