Opera Holland Park Norma

Norma – Opera in two acts [Sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Norma – Nelly Miricioiu
Pollione – Don Bernardini
Adalgisa – Diana Montague
Oroveso – Conal Coad
Flavio – Nicholas Ransley
Clotilde – Sandra Oman
Children – Daniel Hart & Anthony Mason

Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Brad Cohen

Director – Mike Ashman
Set Design – Will Bowen
Costumes – Charles and Patricia Lester
Lighting – Mark Doubleday

Reviewed by: Paul Hutchinson

Reviewed: 8 June, 2004
Venue: Opera Holland Park, London

Opera Holland Park got its 2004 season off to a fine start with Bellini’s Norma. It’s not a work seen frequently enough, which makes this staging all the more welcome, especially in such an excellent first-night performance as this.

Norma was premiered at La Scala Milan on 26 December 1831. It was poorly received. Subsequent performances, however, proved the piece a success, and so it has remained. Brad Cohen’s conducting lived up to his usual, high standards. A lot of late-19th-century varnish has accrued to this work; from the first bar of the Overture, Cohen swept all that away, allowing genuine and appropriate style to shine – crisp, no-nonsense tempos and flowing melodic lines.

Regarding the staging, there is not much a director can do, so Mike Ashman’s solution is to simply focus on the opera’s inherent statuesque qualities – simple moves for the solo characters during the set-pieces and organic groupings for the chorus – to avoid the action becoming static.

The role of Norma is one of the most demanding of all operatic roles. Nelly Miricioiu’s assumption of Norma proved that here is a singer with many of those requirements well and truly under her belt. Her command of bel canto is complete. From the flowing cantilena of “Casta Diva”, through the duets with Adalgisa, then Pollione, here was revealed Miricioiu’s rare ability to project a full, rounded, and well-modulated pianissimo vocal tone throughout the evening. In a role that must offer every temptation to do so, not a single vocal cliché was heard.

The crux of the opera is the encounters between Norma and Adalgisa, her confidante. It seems that everything Diana Montague does is edged with gold. Her sense of drama is as acute as her fine musicianship. She was the perfect foil to Miricioiu. The magic begins with “Ah, remembranza” when Adalgisa tells Norma that she has fallen in love with Pollione, who is Norma’s lover and the father of her two children. The Act Two duet “Mira, O Norma” in which Adalgisa pleads for Norma’s children treats us to, probably, the best singing of the evening with the two women riding Bellini’s lovely lines and each listening to the other. Truly spellbinding.

Don Bernardini’s Pollione is somewhat under par dramatically. Although he starts with a reasonable account of “Meco all, altar”, he didn’t match the females in dramatic involvement, although he acquitted himself with a powerful contribution in his great duet with Norma, snatching his moment when she reveals she wanted to kill their children. One imagines the voltage will be higher at subsequent performances.

Conal Coad’s Oroveso was sonorous and commanding, although more evidence that he is actually Norma’s father would have been welcome. Clotilde and Flavio gave more than adequate support, so too the children.

The chorus was generally good, recovering from some inexplicable flatness at the start of Act Two to display real power in the ‘Guerra’ chorus in which the main females contribute in the quiet part, Miricioiu’s lovely tone tracing the line upwards to its climax.

There is much to enjoy, then, especially the singing of Miricioiu and Montague; and the overall effect of the production is to instil a greater familiarity and love of a truly lovely work. Don’t miss!

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