Bellini’s Norma can suffer from directorial impositions on the drama for it is a relatively straightforward tale; how the characters, particularly Norma herself, react to their situations provides the theatrical core. In a concert performance without distracting stage business, elaborate sets and the like one can really concentrate on how the singers colour and inflect the text bringing the story alive. That is what bel canto opera is all about after all.
Norma is often a challenge to mount as the three principal roles are all demanding. This full-blooded and direct performance was full of fire and verve; the only cavil was that at times the spirited playing of the Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra threatened to overwhelm both us and singers. Dane Lam conducted a generally fleet and forthright account yet was extraordinarily responsive to his singers, making sense of Bellini’s occasionally sudden and potentially jarring changes of style. However, the bass end of was somewhat dominant. There was some lovely playing – notably from flautist Ben Pateman. As ever the Chorus sang lustily and with commitment.
Norma is a peach of a part, the singer has to display such a wide range of emotions contrasted with maternal instincts and failing religious pledge She has to do so singing music that requires stamina, superb breath control, a strong sense of line, fiery coloratura and also some forceful dramatic moments. Helena Dix provided these facets with considerable aplomb. Her voice at its creamiest has allure, grace and poise and these were evident in ‘Casta diva’. She also caught the swings of mood that open the second Act extraordinarily well. That she can also turn on a steely edge and considerable power meant we weren’t short-changed when it came to Norma’s public pronouncements.
There was clever casting for Pollione and Adalgisa. Christopher Turner’s voice has a supple Italianate ring to it and his precise diction was evident immediately. Pollione isn’t the most likeable of characters, a serial seducer, seems religiously intolerant and certainly this Roman military leader thinks he and his nation are a cut above. Turner didn’t flinch at revealing these unsavoury elements but also managed to give Pollione’s final reconciliation with Norma some credibility, their duet a highlight. Elin Pritchard was an unusually characterful and positive Adalgisa, as often happens when the role is given to a true soprano. Her voice has a richness that both contrasted and blended well with Dix’s more silvery sound – and their second-Act duet was treasurable; although it’s always odd that Adalgisa vanishes from the action at this point!
In the other roles there was also quality. Oroveso spends much of the opera thundering and booming away and inciting the druids and Gaulish warriors to do their stuff! Joshua Bloom’s resonant bass tones certainly did justice to this and whilst it was a good idea to have him placed within the chorus for the majority of the evening it was a miscalculation not to bring him to the front of the stage for the final scene when Norma informs her father that she has children and begs him to protect their futures. Claire Pendleton was a sympathetic Clotilde and Adam Music supported well in the relatively thankless role of Flavio.