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Reviews

28 Oct 2018

Soloists excel in Chelsea Opera Group's Norma at Cadogan Hall

“Let us not be ashamed to be carried away by the simple nobility and beauty of a lucid melody of Bellini. Let us not be ashamed to shed a tear of emotion as we hear it!”

Norma, Chelsea Opera Group at Cadogan Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Helena Dix (Norma)

Photo credit: Grzegorz Monkiewicz

 

The young Richard Wagner, writing in Heinrich Laube’s Zeitung für die elegante Welt during the 1830s, suggested that German composers should look to learn from the Italians, and particular from the flowing vocal melodies and bel canto expressiveness of Bellini, whom he affectionately nicknamed ‘the gentle Sicilian’. Perhaps less surprisingly, Tchaikovsky, having read the first biography of Bellini, wrote to a friend, “I have always felt great sympathy towards Bellini. When I was still a child the emotions which his graceful melodies, always tinged with melancholy, awakened in me were so strong that they made me cry”.

Despite being standard repertory fare in the 1950s and ’60s, subsequently Norma fell out of favour, perhaps because of the fearsome demands it makes upon the soprano brave enough to embody the titular Druid priestess in all her roles - leader, mother, lover. 2016 was, though, ‘ Norma year’ in London, with ENO staging their first ever production of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece in February and the ROH presenting the first production at Covent Garden for almost 30 years in September.

Now, Chelsea Opera Group, who tackled Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi in 2014, have mounted a concert performance of Norma. And, if I had any doubts about the wisdom of this repertoire choice, not just because of the challenging writing for the soloists but also because the choruses, though energetic, are not great in number, then these were immediately and absolutely swept away by the stunning performances of the principals - two of whom, like conductor Dane Lam, have Australian origins or links - at Cadogan Hall.

Sopranos who are equipped to follow in the path of Guiditta Pasta, Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, Callas and Joan Sutherland, to name but a few illustrious exponents of the role, may be rare, but Helena Dix is undoubtedly one of those with the vocal and expressive qualities to climb to the summit of this operatic Everest. The star of Wexford Festival Opera’s award-winning 2013 production of Jacopo Foroni’s Cristina, Regina di Svezia , her lyric soprano is silky and soars effortlessly. As Cristina, Dix’s poise and dignity were much in evidence in the ceremonial scenes and she brought such gravitas and authority to her role here, establishing the emotional profundity and maturity of the Druid priestess. She was a noble presence, by turns vulnerable and authoritative, her utterances sincere but also at times portentous. We saw a relaxed and caring Norma, in her duet when Adalgisa at the start of Act 2, when the women come together in feminine unity. Her maternal love and distress touched our hearts as she pleaded with her father, Oroveso, to spare her children from suffering and shame after her death.

Dix alternates her chest and head voice with ease and has a lovely clean-edged tone. She softened it beautifully for ‘Casta diva’, demonstrating stunning power, control and expansiveness of breath, to offer the requisite nuance. In the florid cabaletta, though, the Australian soprano released her voice in rapturous flights, gleaming lightly. Elsewhere, Norma’s anger drew forth a full, weighty sound which quelled both Adalgisa and Pollione in the trio at the close of Act 1, while tenderness was served by her beautiful pianissimo. She had the stamina to build towards the fortitude and sense of duty which dominate the close, and if Dix seemed to tire a little at start of Act 2 - some of the phrasing was ‘choppier’ - then she may have simply been saving herself for the final scena.

After Norma’s opening scene, I feared that we would not have an Adalgisa who could match Dix’s vocal authority. I need not have worried: Elin Pritchard’s rich soprano conveyed all the emotional urgency and vacillation of the youthful Adalgisa, who is not burdened with such vast responsibilities but who is driven by overpowering passions. The persuasive characterisation of Pritchard’s Adalgisa was enhanced by the fact that she had learnt the part well enough to sing almost entirely off-score throughout. I’ve seen two of Pritchard’s recent performances, and her Adalgisa confirmed her impressive dramatic and vocal range. It’s hard to imagine a role more different to the motorbike-obsessed Marie in Opera della Luna’s production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment at Wilton’s Music Hall this summer; and, if she had had no trouble ascending to Marie’s high Es, then the luxurious richness of her middle register which had been so strongly in evidence during her performance as Miss Jessel in Regent Park’s The Turn of Screw once again made its mark. One sensed every atom of Adalgisa’s passion, anguish and guilt during this terrific performance.

I first enjoyed Christopher Turner’s firm lyric tenor in two of Bampton Classical Opera’s recent productions: Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio in 2015 and Gluck's Philémon e Baucis the following year. Currently performing in ENO’s Salome , here Turner was an unusually sympathetic Pollione, overcome by genuine strength of feeling, suffering rather than imposing cruelty on other. From the first, this Roman knew that he had been consumed by a higher force that could not be resisted, whatever tragedy would consequently and inevitably befall him and those he loved. In his opening cavatina, ‘Meco all’altar di Venere’, Turner’s recounting of Pollione’s terrifying dream was paradoxically both remorseful and determined. The tenor avoided over-exaggeration or mannerism but made good use of a convincingly Italianate ring and a ‘sob’ which was occasionally an effective, piercing frisson through the lyricism.

Australian-American bass Joshua Bloom was a thunderous Oroveso, sounding sonorously and magisterially from amid the Chorus: no Druid would surely dare to ignore Oroveso’s instruction to look out for the rising moon (‘Ite sul colle, O Druidi’), but Bloom effectively lifted his song from the choral sound, and allowed it to be re-subsumed. Despite the literal distance between father and daughter, the emotional threads that tie Norma and Oroveso were powerfully communicated at the close of Act 2. The minor roles of Pollione’s friend Flavio and Norma’s confidante Clotilde, were sung very competently by Adam Music and Claire Pendleton respectively.

And, so, what of the Chelsea Opera Group Chorus? Though the tenors were fairly few in number, the combined male forces made a vigorous and wholesome sound, and the full Chorus essayed a stirring War Hymn, invigorated by the relaxed and encouraging gestures of their conductor, Dane Lam. I was impressed by the fluid drama that Lam crafted; accelerations and changes of tempo were clearly and deftly indicated by the left-hander, and if the Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group didn’t always follow his precise commands instantly, then Lam was untroubled and simply worked effectively to wind them up to the mark he had set. He conjured a true sense of grandeur and tragic intensity at the musical and dramatic climaxes, as well as tenderness in the intimate moments. His efforts were rewarded with solid orchestral playing: there was some expressive cello lyricism and in general the strings were much less ragged than they have sometimes been during past COG performances that I’ve attended. There was a real sense, too, that the instrumentalists were listening to the singers, and some particularly note-worthy flute playing from Ben Pateman. Tuning was generally good, though less secure in the quieter, slower passages where horns and brass were sometimes imprecise; and, I’d have liked more confident and forthright playing from across the whole woodwind section, to give their contributions more telling presence.

Perhaps inevitably, during this concert performance, in which the soloists were so striking and compelling, it was the passages of emotional intimacy that held sway over the vast national and religious conflicts. But, this was a good account of this quintessential bel canto gem, one which whetted my appetite for COG’s next two ventures into the rarer parts of the repertoire in the spring and summer of 2019 - Mefistofele by Boito in March and Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon - which will both be performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Claire Seymour

Bellini: Norma

Norma - Helena Dix, Adalgisa - Elin Pritchard, Pollione - Christopher Turner, Oroveso - Joshua Bloom, Flavio - Adam Music, Clotilde - Claire Pendleton; Conductor - Dane Lam, Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra.

Cadogan Hall, London: Saturday 27th October 2018.

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