Rising to the Occasion: Norma at English National Opera

Bellini – Norma

Pollione – Peter Auty
Oroveso – James Creswell
Norma – Marjorie Owens
Adalgisa – Jennifer Holloway
Clotilde – Valerie Reid
Flavio – Adrian Dwyer

Chorus of English National Opera, Orchestra of English National Opera / Stephen Lord.
Stage director – Christopher Alden.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London, England.  Monday, March 7th, 2016.

As Zerbinetta says to the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos ‘ein Augenblick ist wenig’ and in the few short months since I last wrote about English National Opera a lot has changed.  Their CEO, Cressida Pollock, has advocated reducing the contract of ENO’s chorus to 9 months out of 12 in order to try and plug the funding gap that is placing the company in existential peril.  That ENO desperately needs reform is undisputable but to put into jeopardy what is the only world-class opera chorus in London is an extremely grave mistake.  Furthermore, there appears to have been no attempt to engage in a massive fundraising campaign to raise money from private and corporate donors, rather Pollock’s approach seems to have been derived from management school textbooks with a disappointing lack of artistic and financial strategy.

'Norma' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK
Peter Auty, Jennifer Holloway, Marjorie Owens, Adrian Dwyer© Alastair Muir

A shame because this Norma was musically very fulfilling.  The staging by Christopher Alden was previously seen at Opera North and in Chemnitz.  I can’t say I was convinced by his phallus-obsessed approach.  Indeed, it almost felt that he refused to take the work seriously and seemed to treat it almost as a parody.  Updated to a superstitious closed society that appeared to be quite primeval (lots of axes and sickles on display) the Romans were apparently landowners who took money off the druids who seemed to be farmers.  I enjoy nothing more than having a director take me on a journey and challenge my preconceptions about a work; except here, it seemed to be that Alden hadn’t completely figured out who the Romans were and what precisely was their relationship with the druids.  The set (Charles Edwards) was dominated by a giant piece of wood that when erect was worshipped by the population.  During Norma’s and Adalgisa’s glorious act 2 duet the wood was erect and towering over them as if portraying Pollione’s member that was the cause of Norma and Adalgisa’s issues.  Later the phallic obsession took a more unpleasant turn with Flavio being castrated in full view by Oroveso and Clotilde parading his dismembered appendage with great glee around the stage.  Pollione also rode the wood enthusiastically during his aria which made me wonder whether after Norma and Adalgisa he might move onto Flavio.  I have no doubt that someone with the time to write a feminist reading of this staging would have a lot to say.  As Norma sang ‘casta diva’ Pollione read a newspaper loudly.  This exemplified what I felt was Alden’s reluctance to take the story seriously, his inability to create context or to create a viable narrative for the setting in which he had placed the work.  The constant pushing of characters to the floor and furniture abuse quickly became tiresome.  As a staging, it was quite frankly, extremely disappointing.

'Norma' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK
Peter Auty & Jennifer Holloway © Alastair Muir

It was performed in George Hall’s highly musical translation.  For once, I was pleased to hear a translation that followed the musical line and seemed relatively singable.  The diction of the entire cast was impeccable with every word easy to follow.  Nevertheless, and I know this is highly personal, I missed the warm vowel sounds of the original, the narrow English vowels inevitably had an effect on the warmth of the vocal line.  I spent much of the evening wishing that I could hear this fine cast performing in Italian.

'Norma' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK
Marjorie Owens, Peter Auty, ENO Chorus © Alastair Muir

Marjorie Owens was a very good Norma.  There was an announcement made at the start of the evening that Owens was suffering from a persistent chest infection.  Other than a few places where she was slightly sharp as if perhaps overcompensating, she sounded absolutely fantastic.  The voice is a decent size, bright but with a pleasant quick vibrato and excellent resilience.  She has an impressive top that rode the ensembles with ease and is a highly musical singer.  Her ‘casta diva’ was sung with rapt beauty, she gave us several well-sustained pianissimi and she rose to the challenge of the final scene with apparently limitless energy.  Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to be the owner of a trill and she is yet to achieve the ability to float the more florid music on the breath.  Again, these were less than optimum circumstances and I very much hope to hear Owens again.

'Norma' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK
Marjorie Owens © Alastair Muir

She was partnered by Jennifer Holloway’s Adalgisa.  Holloway has a fascinating repertoire.  The program lists her as a lyric mezzo but she has already appeared at ENO as Musetta and is due to debut as Salome in Dresden next year.  To my ears she is most certainly a mezzo but one with a bright and easy top pinging out an impressive high C where required.  The sound was nicely contrasted with Owens, a darker, more citrusy tone with good roundness.  Peter Auty was a reliable Pollione.  His isn’t the most glamorous tenor to have essayed this music but it was certainly honestly sung and he made it to the end even if his approach felt ever so slightly cautious.  The remainder of the cast was fine. James Creswell’s Oroveso was sung in a muscular bass baritone that carried well if perhaps not as much resonance as one normally finds in the role.  Adrian Dwyer made much of Flavio’s music with his spicy tenor and was dramatically very impressive throughout given that Alden frequently had him performing various acts of stage business.

'Norma' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK
Adrian Dwyer, James Creswell © Alastair Muir

The ENO Chorus was on fabulous form singing with glorious amplitude, water-tight ensemble and decent blend.  Perhaps the tenors were a bit restrained in ‘Norma viene’ where ideally they should shine out of the texture a little more but the accuracy and warmth of tone of the entire group was reason for celebration.  The ENO orchestra played with real bel canto sensibility, especially in the strings, playing with phrasing that genuinely matched the beauty of the vocal line.  Tuning in the strings was absolutely impeccable.  The woodwinds were also full of character although the banda sounded a little understaffed.  I found Stephen Lord’s conducting problematic.  While he obtained splendid playing from these outstanding forces, his tempi far too often felt flaccid.  I longed for the rhythmic impetus of a Minasi or a Rhorer to really keep the action flowing.  Ornamentation was notable for its absence and I also wished that the singers would really take risks with the vocal line and make it sound like they were the only people in the world who could sing it.

This was a bit of a mixed evening.  The staging really didn’t have anything for me to recommend it.  However, vocally there was much that was indeed wonderful.  The ENO chorus and orchestra once again proved their reputation as the finest operatic forces in London and we were introduced to a couple of very interesting talents.  It certainly is a show worth seeing – the musical values are extremely high.



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