This flagship of the 2016 Festival was a fascinating experience. The production has flaws, there were occasional slips in musical cohesion, and the question of Cecilia Bartoli's performance in the title role is a complex one. But the level of red blooded drama, anchored by Bartoli's electric presence, ultimately overrides the questions.
The only previous time I heard this work live was in the comparatively recent Opera North run performed, as I understand is standard, with a large orchestra and bigger voiced singers. This version, as other reviewers have noted, sees the forces downsized, quite evidently to accommodate Bartoli. This does bring clear benefits, and frankly I don't think Bartoli needed to make such claims to the idea that this is what Bellini originally intended (which seems to be debatable). It's a perfectly defensible approach on its own merits. For one thing it is easier, it seems to me, to locate appropriate sized voices that blend effectively with each other when you downsize everybody than it is when you're trying to cast large voices.
The central question of the exercise remains does Bartoli succeed having recast the surrounding structures in this way. The answer is yes but, for it is at root a success of charismatic dramatic presence, where she physically commands the stage whenever she's on it. Secondly, it's a success of great technique – Bartoli negotiates the passagework mostly convincingly and often superbly. Vocally, she is totally compelling in the more intimate moments – the great duet with Pollione towards the end of Act II and the opening aria of the same act as she wrestles over whether to kill her children. But even with these forces there are other places where Bartoli's vocal power doesn't go as far as the role really needs – the end of Act I is a key example. In sum, it's a performance I'm very glad to have seen, but I can imagine a performance of the role that in purely vocal terms would go further.
The supporting roles are all well taken, and form an unusually well balanced ensemble. Rebeca Olvera brings an effectively breathy, girlish quality to Adalgisa, John Osborn a suitably heroic timbre to Pollione, and Peter Kalman a nice gravitas to Oroveso – the latter really has only one moment to make his vocal mark, but he very much made the most of it. The minor roles are well taken. The Swiss Radio and Television Chorus sing finely, and are in the main well directed to bring out individuality of character (again something not enough opera performances achieve). I always worry a bit about period orchestras having too thin a sound so I was pleased to find this was not the case with I Barocchisti. Nor are they lacking in passion – indeed they contribute strongly to the feeling of electric drama this sort of opera really needs and doesn't always get. Chorus master Gianluca Capuano, substituting for advertised conductor Diego Fasolis, achieves the most important thing which is to keep the dramatic momentum driving forward, and can be pardoned the occasional lapse in pit/stage absolute precision.
The other area with significant shortcomings is Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's muddled production. It's a shame because certain aspects are blessedly excellent. The movement of people, so often poor in opera, is very strong here. Unfortunately, this does highlight the places where they falter – there is a little too much clinging to walls in certain scenes. Then there are the places where I felt less would have been more – I know that Bartoli and Olvera are singing about Norma's children in their Act 2 duet, but the baby was not convincing enough to really work (at least from my unusually close view). The idea that Adalgisa and Pollione are going to consummate their relationship as soon as they finish singing their Act 1 duet is perfectly reasonable, but the latter being in such a hurry to strip off was a distraction. Then there's the overall setting. Apparently it is supposed to be occupied France. All I can say is that this was completely unclear to me simply from watching the show (the only really telling hint to my mind was the cutting off of Norma's hair at the very end). The school room does not make a convincing substitute for the forests and cloister that are regularly mentioned in the text, and the presence of the bed was particularly odd. Fortunately, after the overture, the school idea essentially disappears from view, the focus is on the individual interactions, and the dramatic presence of the leads is sufficiently strong that it largely successfully distracts from the fact that location and context are muddled.
Overall, I'm glad to have seen this performance. Could the work be given greater treatment? In terms of production, definitely, but I also lean to the view that it could in terms of title role (looking back I find I was very impressed by Annemarie Kremer for Opera North). Is Bartoli a performer of remarkable dramatic force and charisma who has made a legitimate and in some ways memorable experiment? No question. In sum, well worth catching if it tours elsewhere.
Housekeeping Note: The Festival has previous form with front of house issues at major venues and last night, in the Festival Theatre Stalls, they reoccurred. It is, quite simply, not of international standard to admit latecomers (with ushers bearing torches, doors audibly closing, people shuffling down rows) during the opening chorus. I was also surprised to observe that a man (four seats in) who left the auditorium a third of the way through Act One was allowed back in. At the Royal Opera House it is always made quite clear that if you leave the auditorium during an act you will not be readmitted – that is, in my view, how it should be (and I say this as someone who has been in that position on several occasions).
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