Bellini’s ‘bel canto’ operas are an acquired taste. This production of his 1831 masterpiece Norma is not likely to convert the sceptics because, despite a bold vision of updating the plot to the present day, the story still creaks along on its rusty hinges and no amount of good singing – and there is plenty on display at Holland Park – can overcome the implausible sight of two eco-warrior priestesses fighting over their soldier lover from the occupying Roman force.
The Romans occupy Gaul and oppress the Druids. The Druid priestess Norma has broken her vows of chastity, entered into a secret marriage with the Roman proconsul, Pollione, and borne him two children. But Pollione has tired of Norma and transferred his affections to Adalgisa, a trainee priestess. Norma discovers that she has been betrayed and threatens in turn to kill the children, Adalgisa, Pollione and herself. All this is set against a backdrop of simmering rebellion as the Druids dream of freeing themselves from the Roman yoke.
The backdrop to this tortured love triangle – the occupation of a country by foreign troops – is all too familiar to a contemporary audience. The opera opens with a distressing scene as the Druid women are being sexually abused by the Roman troops in some sort of camp – the Druids look like a new age hippie tribe, the troops are dressed in conventional desert uniforms. This is a perfectly reasonable modern setting to evoke the Roman occupation but it all begins to fall apart when Norma appears looking like a cross between a Tolkien heroine and a pre-Raphaelite maiden. The Druid shrine is a tree stump and there seems to be a lot of nature worship involved in Norma’s rituals. Pollione on the other hand looks like a soldier from Desert Storm.
These visual incongruities detract from some fine singing. The role of Norma – one of those that Maria Callas used to sing her way to stardom – demands a massive vocal range, and fine acting skills to carry us through the unlikely plot twists. Yvonne Howard almost pulls it off and certainly convinces as the spiritual leader of the tribe but some of the hugely demanding musical moments don’t quite get the vocal sound they need and some of the drama seems forced – too much staring at a sacred sword that sits on the altar.
The duets between Norma and Adalgisa, beautifully sung by Heather Shipp, provided some of the best musical moments in the opera and the destruction of their friendship by Pollione’s treachery is very moving. Joseph Wolverton sings Pollione with passion but his willingness to put at risk Roman rule for his new love never convinces. Despite having the smallest part of the four principals, Keel Watson as Oroveso the tribal leader sings with power and beauty. Peter Robinson coaxes some marvellous playing from the orchestra and the famous ‘Casta Diva’ aria lives up to expectations but, with apologies to fans of Bellini, the musical patterns that he uses to evoke sadness and despair come to sound repetitive – too many cavatinas perhaps?
Holland Park Opera is now a well established and welcome feature of London’s summer musical scene. This production of Norma is a brave and praiseworthy attempt to breathe life into a classic from the early nineteenth century. That it only partially succeeds is down to Bellini and his librettist, not to the Holland Park team.