Thursday 23 February 2012

Opera North's Norma or, By God there's something in this Bel Canto Business

I am normally not a particular fan of bel canto, and I am definitely not a fan of Christopher Alden as a director. I hadn't heard of any of the singers involved and it was therefore once again the completionist in me which drove me to book for a three hour opera I hadn't seen in the middle of the working week at a destination which public transport does not make it easy for me to access (and indeed the vagaries of public transport infuriatingly forced me to leave before the end of the performance). However, for once my vice was proved a virtue. This is a stunningly good evening of opera and anyone within striking distance of the remaining performances in Nottingham or Newcastle should not miss it.

A number of things combine to make this evening. The first is that the two leading ladies – Annemarie Kremer (Norma) and Keri Alkema (Adalgisa) are exceptional. To begin with I was a little more taken by the latter, but Kremer grows in power as the evening progresses. Both have the necessary dynamic range for these challenging parts going from exposed piano sections (magical in the second act as Alkema pleads with Norma not to sacrifice her children) to raging fury (again Norma's call to arms was spell-binding). This vocal prowess is matched to real electric stage presence from both women even when, as is occasionally inevitably the case this being a Christopher Alden production, they have been given silly things to do by the director.

Next to them the remainder of the cast inevitably has a bit of a struggle to keep up. Luis Chapa makes a creditable fist of Pollione and while one might sometimes wish for a bit more beauty of tone and a bit less sense of effort he brings off the ensembles well and gives a nicely judged acting performance going from pretty utter cad in Act One to somewhat redeemed cad in Act Two. James Creswell as Oroveso delivered his Act Two aria with good heft and presence, and otherwise hovers around looking suitably menacing.

The principals are ably supported by superb work from the Opera North Chorus and Orchestra, and by conductor Oliver von Dohnanyi. It is striking to see this so close on the ENO Tales of Hoffmann. Leaving aside that Norma is unquestionably a far more powerful and dramatic score, as a committed ensemble the Opera North team knock their London counterparts decisively into the shade. The Chorus are precise, their dynamic range spot on, their presence dramatic and compelling. Similarly in the pit Dohnanyi gives the music that sense of life and excitement that Antony Walker singularly failed to bring to Hoffmann. From the very beginning with scarcely a let up this is a driven exciting edge of the seat evening.

And finally we come to Christopher Alden's side of this enterprise. In advance I expected to be annoyed – regular readers may remember that he was responsible for the ENO Midsummer Night's Dream to which I handed the Worst Opera gong last year. Fortunately, this is in the main a perfectly acceptable production. I wasn't at all clear exactly where he'd relocated the action to – the text is obviously Romans and Gauls, one review I've just glanced at suggests 19th century exploited peasants (George Hall, The Guardian). This was far from clear to me as I watched, but wherever it's been updated to it doesn't effect the dramatic power, though I don't think the staging deserves much credit for the electric character of the performance. The main piece of set is an enormous tree-trunk which lies across the stage at the beginning and is gradually raised as things proceed. Again this isn't especially effective, but it doesn't seriously detract from the drama. We are also blessed with plenty of axes and other implements of violence where the text calls for them which definitely does help the drama. Those who know the opera will know that it ends with Norma and Pollione throwing themselves onto a funeral pyre but I can't report on how Alden handles this as I was compelled to haste from the theatre for my train as we were about to reach it.

There are some odd aspects to the production. I did occasionally feel that Norma's heavy dress was a bit impractical for the scrambling around on tree trunks and rolling around on the floor she was obliged to do. Also, there is rather too much of said rolling around and clinging to walls and furniture and the singers are to be commended for managing to carry on vocally from what must have been at times far from ideal physical positions. Occasionally too, one could feel Alden's urge to busyness threatening to get the better of him, but blessedly something seems to have restrained him before it could do so to the serious detriment of the evening's dramatic punch.

All in all this was a revelatory performance. I haven't seen a Bellini opera live before, he doesn't come round that often and I assumed that this neglect was probably deserved. Clearly with Norma it is genuinely the enormous challenge of finding a lead singer who can do it. It is therefore all the more to the credit of Opera North that they have taken on the challenge and met it so successfully. In short (as usual not really), do not miss this.

Housekeeping Note: My followers on Twitter will know that I have often had cause to complain about the poor railway links between Lincoln and just about anywhere. This is especially so with Nottingham. I discovered last month (when considering a Saturday concert) that it is not possible to go to Nottingham for an evening show on a Saturday and get back by public transport because of a ridiculously early last train. Monday-Friday the last train is at 10.25, but unfortunately these evening's performance over-ran – it was still going just after 10.05 by which point I dared wait no longer for fear of getting stranded. I wonder whether Opera North and the Nottingham Theatre Royal might consider (for the benefit of those of us who have to travel) either an early start performance for a show of this length (say 6.30pm as is often done in London these days, though I grant you usually on Saturdays) or perhaps lobbying East Midlands trains to do something about the Saturday service. Alternatively, if I have any readers in Lincoln who would like to offer me transport next time Opera North comes to Nottingham with a longish show perhaps they would get in touch!

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