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Sunday, 4 March 2012

Classical - Norma - Opera North

Star rating – 9/10

I don’t go to see opera all that often but when I do I’m a bit of a stickler for only seeing productions that are sung in the language they are written in, rather than being translated into English for our benefit. There are a couple of good reasons for being so picky. Firstly, opera sung in the original language, such as Italian, are just much more beautiful to listen to. Secondly, for non aficionados like me, it’s much easier to follow what is going on by being able to read the surtitles as you go along than to try and hear every word as it is sung, especially as some of the women performers sing in such high pitched tones it can be a bit tricky to keep up with intricate plots. Anything else just feels like dumbing down. 
In my view, Opera North are often a bit guilty of this, but their current production of Bellini’s ‘Norma’ is stupendous, and encapsulates everything that is magical and spellbinding about great opera. It might not be the most famous of operas, but when you hear the sumptuous and entrancing aria of ‘Casta diva’ quite early on in the first act, its familiarity draws you in and its beauty is entrancing. The title role is sung with passion and conviction by Annemarie Kremer, and it is a very big role to play, having been made famous by no less a diva than the great Maria Callas. Of course no-one can match Callas, but Kremer totally does the role justice in her way.

Norma is an opera with a simple plot that is easy to follow. Its setting is Roman occupied Gaul, with Norma being a powerful Druid priestess, whose followers look to her to tell them when to rise up against their oppressors. But Norma is harbouring a dreadful secret love for Roman proconsul Pollione, with whom she has had two sons.  So she is already somewhat compromised, but when she hears of Pollione’s unfaithful promises to a young temple virgin Adalgisa, her world collapses. 

It is a bit like the most perfect of Greek tragedies, Medea, where Jason (of the Argonauts fame) pays for his unfaithfulness with Medea murdering their two children for bloody revenge. But Norma is not just simply out to pay Pollione back, she is in dread of the fate that awaits her children, either in Gaul as the offspring off a Roman oppressor, or in Rome as lowly slaves. So her contemplation of their murder is not simply a pure revenge attack here. But Norma is just as torn as Medea about what she should do. And, unlike Medea, Norma shows complete sympathy for the young woman with whom her lover has lusted. The empathy between Norma and Adalgisa is a pillar of this opera. The blend of the voices of Kremer and Keri Alkema is stupendous. 

The setting is sparse but effective; the music transporting. For me this was simply a perfect night at the opera – a simple and splendid opera, performed brilliantly.

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