English National Opera, London Coliseum – until 11 March 2016
No, not that Norma, this Norma. We’ll be reporting on Glenn Close’s return to Paramount at ENO early in April.
Thirty years ago I played the gay character Sparger in Kennedy’s Children. Some nights, his monologue brought the audience to the verge of tears as he describes being beaten up and raped and left ‘face down, on a set of rusty mattress springs’ in a New York alley. Salvation comes from hearing through the open door of a drag club the aria ‘Casta Diva’ from Norma and a new life and a new community beckons. After all this time, it’s heavenly to hear it live and in context and rendered so cleanly by the American soprano Marjorie Owens.
The press blurb opens with “a close-knit community’s way of life is threatened by change” – actually not the ENO chorus campaigning against the imposition of new working contracts but a bunch of Druids led by their high priestess Norma against the Romans who despise them because they deal in human sacrifice. We’re well used to priestly wrongdoings but it’s a shock to find Norma’s a bit of a slapper secretly involved with the Roman proconsul who is also bedding her handmaiden, so she spends much of the opera debating whether to kill her, herself, her children, her lover or the whole lot. Someone gets his balls cut off. It all ends in flames.
With such an abundance of grand guignol, it’s best perhaps to let the music propel you through the three indulgent hours. Although not peppered with telly advertising favourites, Vincenzo Bellini’s score is often melodic, lucid and occasionally painfully beautiful, as well as presenting one of the toughest challenges to the soprano voice, Norma having been the defining high-point of careers like Joan Sutherland or Maria Callas.
Charles Edwards’ doomily permanent set is a huge and lidded wooden box across which is slung a vast tree trunk: you know it’s heftily symbolic, but I couldn’t say of what.
After a tentative offstage start, Owens soon hits her stride – literally, straddling the tree to deliver the big number – and with the orchestral restraint designed by Bellini and sensitively managed by conductor Stephen Lord, its initial four syllables stretched over fourteen notes, the great vocal hymn to the moon rises and is splendiferous. As assistant priestess Adalgisa, equally misguided as Norma in her choice of men and career path, Jennifer Holloway joins Owens in a tag team like Whoopi and the novice in Sister Act, and their duet Sola, furtiva al tempio (Often I would wait for him) where they share and compare their agony at loving the same faithless shit is a perfect blend.
The druids appear to have been transplanted to 19th century America as beardless Amish foresters in drab fustian and toting freshly-sharpened farm tools. The visual starkness does leave you to concentrate on the music, though, and when at the climax Norma’s failings are revealed to the community, its shock and sense of loss is delivered magnificently by the meticulous Chorus.
Like Sparger, everyone needs to find his tribe.
A version of this review appears on Londonist.com
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