Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Seattle

It appears that Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has reached the end of its road in Seattle. Since it opened in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia it has played Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and the English National Opera.

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

Hrůša’s Mahler: A Resurrection from the Golden Age

Jakub Hrůša has an unusual gift for a conductor and that is to make the mightiest symphony sound uncommonly intimate. There were many moments during this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony where he grappled with its monumental scale while reducing sections of it to chamber music; times when the power of his vision might crack the heavens apart and times when a velvet glove imposed the solitude of prayer.

Full-Throated Troubador Serenades San José

Verdi’s sublimely memorable melodies inform and redeem his setting of the dramatically muddled Il Trovatore, the most challenging piece to stage of his middle-period successes.

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Luisa Miller at English National Opera

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors.

Eugène Onéguine in Marseille

A splendid 1997 provincial production of Tchaikovsky’s take on Pushkin’s Bryonic hero found its way onto a major Provençal stage just now. The historic Opéra Municipal de Marseille possesses a remarkable acoustic that allowed the Pushkin verses to flow magically through Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Marjorie Owens as Norma [Photo by Alastair Muir]
18 Feb 2016

Norma , ENO

Notable first performance of Bellini's opera by ENO, with a striking assumption of the title role from the young American soprano

Norma , ENO

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Marjorie Owens as Norma

Photos by Alastair Muir

 

English National Opera's first ever production of Bellini's Norma opened at the London Coliseum on 17 February 2016 at a time when the company is particularly in the spotlight. The production was originally seen at Opera North in 2012. Christopher Alden directed, with designs by Charles Edwards. The young American soprano Marjorie Owens sang Norma, with Peter Auty as Pollione, Jennifer Holloway as Adalgisa and James Creswell as Oroveso. Stephen Lord, the music director of Opera Theatre Saint Louis, conducted.

The challenge for any director is to find a setting for Bellini's opera which provides the right dramatic intensity of the struggle between Gauls and Romans (one that with the benefit of hindsight we know to be doomed), without the possibly risible elements that arise from doing it in togas. Christopher Alden's production seemed to be based in a 19th century Amish-like sect of wood workers and foresters, with the 'Romans' marked out as capitalist exploiters; both Peter Auty's Pollione and Adrian Dwyer's Flavio were dressed in smart 19th century frock coats and top hats in marked contrast to the backwoods 'Gauls'. Charles Edwards set was an impressive yet simple wood clad box (admirably assisting the singers), with a huge tree trunk into which the 'Druids' carved runic like figures and which, thanks to a system of pulleys, was raised and lowered. This formed the centre-piece of the 'Gauls' cult which seemed to involve imbibing narcotic fumes to induce a trance. For my taste, Alden was a little too interested in the minutiae of the cult, with a great deal of business around the tree, the narcotics, a bible like book and a significant use of axes. And visually the beauties of the set did not carry over into the depressingly sludge coloured costuming

I think the production would have been stronger if it had been more abstract, but Christopher Alden's productions are rarely discreet. This was full of his usual trademarks including extremes of behaviour, a mistrust of the stage directions which was almost wilful and a sense of expressionist drama which, at its best, can heighten the musical experience. At the London Coliseum we have recently seen and heard how Christopher Alden's approach can work wonders with composers like Janacek, but I was less convinced by his taking this approach to Bellini. Too often the stylised behaviour and intense violence on stage seemed at odds to the music in a way which was distracting rather than producing creative dialogue.

ENO Norma Peter Auty, Jennifer Holloway, Marjorie Owens, Eleanor Inglis and Adrian Dwyer (c) Alastair Muir.pngPeter Auty, Jennifer Holloway, Marjorie Owens, Eleanor Inglis and Adrian Dwyer

As Norma, Marjorie Owens displayed a big, bright voice with an admirable freedom throughout the range, with only a hint of tightness at the very top which is entirely attributable to the effects of a prominent first night. She is a soprano in the mould of Jane Eaglen (whom I heard as Norma with Scottish Opera), and Rita Hunter (whom I only heard on record in the role). Currently she is singing the title roles in Aida and Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, plus jugend-dramatisch roles such as Senta (Der fliegende Hollander).

Norma is a big sing and the soprano is rarely off the stage and much of the drama is developed in a series of duets and trios. But the challenge for a soprano like Owens is not just the stamina required but to be able to sing the fioriture cleanly, evenly and expressively. Owens managed this with creditable honours. Her opening cavatina and cabaletta (which starts with the famous 'Casta diva') showed that Owens could spin a strong line which was not a little elegant and combine power with a sense of the shape of Bellini's music. Perhaps the passage-work was not quite pin-point but it was damn fine.

Another challenge of this role is to marry up the music and text with an intensity of purpose (something which Callas demonstrated brilliantly). Owens showed that she could do this, here scene where she contemplates killing her children was viscerally intense with every note counting, despite some ludicrous axe waving which was required of her by Alden. Elsewhere, I sometimes felt that a care for the beauty of line took precedence, and wanted her to perform with a bit more risk and a bit more bite. She enunciated George Hall's new translation admirably, but could have relished the text more. All in all this was a notable assumption and a performance which will certainly deepen and develop.

Jennifer Holloway is a lyric mezzo-soprano who has been seen at the London Coliseum as Musetta (La Boheme) and Orlovsky (Die Fledermaus). Not a bel canto specialist, she brought a lyric warmth to the role of Adalgisa and a nice intensity which chimed in with Alden's production. She managed to create a sense of youth without seeming too Mumsy yet not compromising the warmth of her tone. Not all the passage-work was free from smudging, but she combined well with Marjorie Owens in the duets. At the moment some bits seemed a little careful, but there were enough moments of magic to make me suspect that this partnership will flourish.

Peter Auty's Pollione was more of an archetype than a real person. Both Auty and Dwyer spent far more time on stage than Bellini might have expected, providing angry, casually exploitative presences. Unfortunately rather than seeming threatening, much of this verged on risible posturing. Auty sang Pollione nobly and strongly, providing a firmness of purpose in the great trio (with Owens and Holloway) which concluded Act One. Yet it was a performance which did not quite spark to anger, and the final denouement with Owens seem solidly creditable, but lacking just that edge of intensity.

James Creswell was an incisive and commanding Oroveso, dominating his fellow 'Gauls' yet singing with a sense of shape and purpose. Valerie Reid as Clotilde was certainly not the callow girl that Clotilde usually is, and Reid brought a wonderfully fierce intensity to her portrayal. Adrian Dwyer as Flavio sang his duet with Auty's Pollione with fine style, so it was a shame that he was disembowelled by the 'Gauls' for his pains! Felix Warren and Samuel Murray were Norma’s rather intense two children.

The chorus were on stunning form and were rightly applauded at the end. They brought a strength and intensity to the choruses which is necessary to make the 'Gauls' believable in their anger, the chorus also brought a sense of belief in the production so that they invested Alden's detailed action with real purpose.

This was a big boned, traditional performance, with Stephen Lord conducting an up front, sometimes loud, account of the score. There was no hint of period style (such as Charles Mackerras might have brought to the performance) and no thought at re-thinking the voice types and relationships such as happened at Cecilia Bartoli's Salzburg performances of the opera. Within these parameters, Lord and the orchestra were were fine accompanists of the singers, and brought out the marches in stirring fashion.

George Hall's admirably straightforward translation was clear and direct, though it did not quite get rid of that sense of strangeness at hearing Bellini in English. And the performance made me realise quite how intimately Bellini's music is bound up into the sound and the poetics of the Italian libretto.

I do not wish to decry the performances at the London Coliseum, and I realise that the exigencies of casting particularly in English make the perfect cast difficult to achieve. But at a time when English National Opera is under such close scrutiny, and at time when there is a sense of questioning as to exactly what the company is for, it was a shame that three of the leading roles in the opera were cast with Americans.

It was wonderful to see bel canto back at the London Coliseum, the serious operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti are no where near frequent enough visitors. I do hope that this production of Norma returns soon as I feel that it has the potential to grow and develop.

Robert Hugill


Cast and production information:

Marjorie Owens: Norma, Peter Auty: Pollione, Jennifer Holloway: Adalgisa, James Creswell: Oroveso, Valerie Reid: Clotidle, Adrian Dwyer: Flavio, Felix Warren and Samuel Murray: Norma’s children. Director: Christopher Alden, Set Designer: Charles Edwards, Costume designer: Sue Willmington, Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman. Conductor: Stephen Lord
English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 17 February 2015.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):