Concert performances of opera are always a delicate business. The English Touring Opera was faced with the challenges in their rendition of Bellini's Norma, presented at London's Cadogan Hall.
Much of this opera's vocal realization and narrative is monopolised by Norma's wilful yet fragile personality and her relationship to the other characters. The plot is driven by her failure to keep her beloved Pollione under control. Everything revolves around her strong reactions, until she finally decides to sacrifice herself - and Pollione - and let her children and her rival Adalgisa live.
In this ETO performance, the depiction of the characters was somewhat unbalanced. Yvonne Howard's assumption of the title role suffered from a distractingly rapid vibrato and from uncertainties in the high tessitura. On the other hand, interpreting the most technically challenging part of the opera, she managed to portray a nuanced character: even amid some vocal weaknesses, she succeeded in painting Norma with appropriate colours of pain and hesitation. Her big number, 'Casta diva', was pleasing if not thrilling; her task was not made simpler by a rather monotonous orchestral accompaniment.
Alwyn Mellor's Adalgisa captures the scene in the first act. Although relying on extreme dynamics rather than subtlety, her performance was filled with the warmth and temperament that was missing in much of the rest of the cast.
On the whole, the vocal characterisation of the two female roles was successful. Howard brought on stage a proud and decisive Norma: her attitude towards Adalgisa was a motherly one, and it matched Mellor's naivety and confidence in Norma's friendship. Their duets weren't always vocally exceptional; nonetheless, 'Mira, o Norma' convinced the audience and was effective in establishing the relationship between the two characters.
The male roles were not equally powerful. Piotr Lempa's Oroveso and Charne Rochford's Flavio offered polished and yet not exciting performances. Justin Lavender's Pollione was vocally weak and did not equal the rest of the cast. In addition, his interplay with the other character was sadly lacking: he seemed to be performing alone on stage, seeking reactions from the audience rather than relating to the other characters.
In fact, the entire dramatic realization of this Norma was problematic. The stage direction, under the supervision of James Hurley, was often frustrating: the singers performed exclusively to the audience, looking at each other only sporadicallyand there was no physical interaction or exploitation of the stage space. A certain dramatic aridity is a danger of all concert performances. And yet, this was an extreme example: the action relied entirely on the vocal expression and the singers were left to a solipsistic engagement in the work.
And if at times the melodic interpretation was enough to compensate for the absence of action, often it was impossible not to feel disorientated at the lack of interplay between the characters. For instance, Adalgisa's betrayal of her religious duties and acceptance of Pollione's love came across as shocking, if not risible. There was nothing in the acting or in the vocal performance to show rejection first, then reticence, and finally surrender to her suitor.
On the other hand, the second act opened with a renewed spirit. The whole cast seemed to become more animated. This was also thanks to a more compelling instrumental performance. Overall, though, the orchestra did not shine under the baton of Michael Rosewell. There was little refinement in the suave string lines that characterise Bellini's score. Nevertheless, with the Act I finale the performance began to assume more passionate tones. This resulted in a crescendo of fervour, up to the final scene of Act II - with the ferocious chorus of druids finely accompanying Norma's sacrifice and punishment.
ETO's take on Norma lacked distinctive temperament and technical refinement by both singers and instrumentalists. Although, their intentions are to be praised: they brought to the stage a challenging opera that is difficult to cast, especially in the multi-layered characterisation of the female roles. If the result was not outstanding, it still offered moments of musical beauty that made the performance worthy being presented to various audiences across the UK.
ETO's Norma will be performed at West Road Concert Hall Cambridge on 11 May and at Coronation Hall, Ulverston on 19 May.
Photo: Yvonne Howard
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