24 Sep 2006


The best Norma on DVD treats the viewer to a blurry picture of washed-out colors and remote, compressed sound.

All those demerits fade into irrelevance when the singers are Montserrat Caballé, Jon Vickers, and Josephine Veasey at the Orange Festival. No other filmed version of Bellini's masterpiece comes close, and this latest one from Dynamic never gets within shouting distance (an apt term for some of the singing), despite its origin at the theater named for the composer.

Filmed at the Teatro Massimo Vincenzo Bellini in June 2005, the staging clumsily combines visually dull traditional sets with goofy director's touches. The costumes appear to be made from hemp, which may have some historical validity but may only serve to induce sympathetic itchiness on the part of many viewers. A beautiful tree highlights the first scene; once the opera moves indoors the stage becomes barren of visual interest. Not so the Druid goddess, portrayed by Dimitra Theodossiou, whose short, flame-red hair gives her a proto-Punk appearance. Norma may be fierce, but she walks into fire, not dives into a mosh pit.

Theodossiou possesses some of the stately self-possession called for by the early scenes, but her "Casta Diva" could have more warmth and beauty to supplement her precision. As the rage erupts, Theodossiou comes into her own, with some scintillating delivery. The problem for some Normas, which Theodossiou does not evade, is to remain sympathetic in her anger. Pollione must eventually come back to her, even to join her in death. Theodossiou remains so edgy and angry that this development does not convince.

A better Pollione than Carlo Ventre's would help matters. Besides lacking an appealing appearance, he can't compensate (as many tenors have) with an attractive, impassioned tone. He tends to bark and sweat, long before he gets anywhere near the pyre. The mousy exterior of Adalgisa, sung by Nidia Palacios, hides a fine young singer who brings out at least a semblance of warmth in Theodossiou. Neither lady can make their dedication to Ventre's Pollione plausible.

As if to throw a little modern stagecraft into the proceedings, director Walter Pagliaro has Pollione brought on stage in act two with each of his hands tied to the end of long ropes. This ridiculous image gets even more ludicrous when Norma asks to be left alone with Pollione, and the ropes are extended off stage into opposite wings. The director would have been better off finding something to do with the chorus, who stand idly around throughout, arms at their sides.

The orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini do a creditable job under conductor Giuliano Carlini. Despite the admirable sound and video quality, this Norma simply cannot claim artistic standards high enough to make it essential viewing.

Chris Mullins