OPERA - OTHER COMPOSERS - NORMA
When Vencenzo Bellini composed Norma in 1830-31, much of Italy was under foreign occupation, paralleling the plot where the Romans dominate Gaul around the time of Julius Caesar. Neither composer nor his librettist, Felice Romani, challenged the censors to imply a call for independence. Attorney-General Ruddock has grounds for declaring Norma an incitement to terrorism as the Druids demand “Slaughter, extermination, revenge!”
Opera Australia’s new production is as innocent of this dimension as Norma was supposed to be of earthly love. She is not guileless since she has managed to conceal her affair with the Roman consul long enough to bear him two sons without the temple authorities finding out.
Any contribution by director George Ogilvie was difficult to discern from the gloom on stage. The result is a period piece from no specific period. Worst of all, the emotional lines between the principals are not established, and hence the audience has little reason to care what happens to anyone except her two kiddies. Apart from a few flats embossed with Celtic patterns, Ogilvie has allowed the foreground to be cluttered with a magic circle which blocks movement in the front of the stage as effectively as the largely unused forest does at the rear. Hence, the Druid choristers were left to express their seething rebelliousness by dozing on their spears.
This immobilisation of the chorus infected their singing, which Bellini wove into his score, enriching its orchestration and underpinning the arias. The throng swelled a couple of times but the want of choral conviction deprived the drama of its Greek fatalism.
Bellini has become synonymous with beautiful singing - bel canto. Voices that would elsewhere be adequate prove useless in Norma. Without a stunning lead and a trio of first-class principals, a performance is not Norma.
Elizabeth Connell who is cast as Norma had proven her worth in Verdi and Janacek. The test for any soprano in this role comes at her first entry where “Casta diva” (“Chaste goddess”) swells with luminosity. The aria has often been transposed down. Connell, however, put it into an emotional space which escapes comparison with Callas or Sutherland. The tiny effect was certainly sweet, but hardly heavenly. This tactic also meant that no first-time listener could have guessed that this aria sets the standard for bel canto. The excellence of Connell’s articulation secures her delineation of character at crucial moments, whether of calm or clamour, frailty or fury. The precision in these swings in feeling was undermined by an equal uncertainty of how the top notes will sound. Some points were scratchy, squally or stumbling, but elsewhere sublime.
In terms of vocal colour, Fiona Janes as the postulant priestess, Adalgisa, matched Connell. Janes’ pleasing and pliant voice has as yet too little of the dramatic controls needed to achieve a bewildered girl-child. Her duets with Connell provided some of the most engaging passages, with ornamentation seeming almost to flower rather than appearing studied.
To the role of the Roman consul, Pollione, Ding Yi offered a tenor of some colour. His stage manner did nothing to suggest that he could seduce a pair of priestesses. He hit notes more often than he shaped phrases. His clear and firm recitatives strayed from their musicality indeed all the principals were often most at ease in their recitatives, on which Bellini bestowed his gift for melody.
The chief Druid Oroveso opens the proceedings with a denunciation of the Romans, which Bruce Martin struggled to deliver. His erstwhile bass is devoid of solemnity as it is torn from the left corner of his mouth. He can appear majestic when standing still.
The supporting parts of Clotilda and Flavio were given by Sally McHugh and Jamie Allen respectively.
In no sense, is this production Grand Opera or lyric tragedy. Designer Kristian Fredrikson has indulged in a nocturne in blacks. Even the Romans are denied the purple. Mark Howett’s lighting knows nothing of the moonlight that symbolises the chaste goddess to whom Norma sings.
Without the conductor , Andrea Licata, the evening would have been a nullity. He did all he could to support the voices but not always subordinate to their inadequacies. The overtures approached the symphonic through his integration of the lyrical with the robust. He even made the most of the skipping march tunes so that they resounded less like a circus band half-remembering Gilbert and Sullivan. During the war cry, Licata’s tempo went almost too quickly for the chorus, but not for the splendour of the brass section.