Friday, July 03, 2009


Bellini not all Dreamy

When thinking of Norma most of us remember dreamy music, as in the aria Casta Diva, the nocturne-like spell supposed to have given Chopin the impetus for his set of pieces bearing that title (though he was not the first in the FIELD) But Norma is actually full of sturdy stuff right from the splendid overture and that silly march – how frequently does Bellini sound like early Verdi!

The performance at the Grange (I was present July 1) gave a good account of the opera with the English Chamber Orchestra in the pit well conducted by Stephen Barlow. Martin Constantine’s production was pleasantly straightforward although he could not resist the current fad of up-dating: electric light, what looked like Kalishnikovs, but why did the high Priestess of the Druids hang out in a kitchen? There was an impressive set which turned and turned again on a revolve as often as the crescent moon shone and disappeared.

But a good Norma depends on the triangle of principal singers; Norma herself, Pollione, the Roman pro-consul who is the father of her two boys – the biggest wimp in Opera? – and Adalgisa, Norma’s side-kick, for whom he has ditched Norma. These three were all dependable, accurate and en place, Claire Rutter in particular in the title-role. What all three lacked was any sense of magic, the X-factor that catches the heart. Charm was absent. Pollione was wooden (John Hudson) and Adalgise (Sara Fulgoni) seemed to force her tone to greater volume than was pleasing.

I tried, but failed, to forget Rosa Ponselle’s best-selling 78 of Casta Diva and the Covent Garden production with Callas, the equally remarkable Ebe Stignani and Jon Vickers – the only non-wimp Pollione I’ve seen. And later Joan Sutherland was pretty good. They all had that charisma that was lacking at the Grange.

Excellent chorus of Druids. This was the middle of the heatwave but it was a joy in the dinner interval to munch and quaff in the airy marquee with gorgeous trees and wheat fields only yards away. Then more of Bellini’s masterpiece. (Near) bliss!

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