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Sometimes Impressive

Bellini's 'Norma' from English Touring Opera,


What sort of voice should Norma have? How do you imagine your ideal Norma sounding -- Callas, Caballé, Sutherland, Jane Eaglen, Kirsten Flagstad, Natalie Dessay? The first Norma was Giuditta Pasta whose repertoire encompassed La Cenerentola, Desdemona (Rossini's Otello), Semiramide plus the premières of Bellini's Il Pirata, La Sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda and Donizetti's Anna Bolena. This list makes you realise that the tendency to see Norma as the primary territory of big dramatic voices might be something of a more recent phenomenon. A similar readjustment has to be made for Adalgisa. The first Adalgisa was Giulia Grisi who went on to sing Semiramide, Anna Bolena, Desdemona, Amina (La Sonnambula) and Donna Anna as well as the title role in Norma.

Traditionally, Norma has been cast with a soprano and a mezzo-soprano, based on the fact that in their duets Adalgisa sings below Norma. But the above list would seem to suggest that both Pasta and Grisi had similar voices. After all, Adalgisa is supposed to be younger than Norma, so casting her as a rich voiced mezzo-soprano is not necessarily obvious vocal casting.

There is, of course, a further consideration which muddies the issue even further: that of pitch. In the early 19th century, pitch was generally lower than today, though pitch had already begun to rise. (Spontini's tuning fork at the Italian Opera in Paris was around a semi-tone below modern concert pitch.) Although this might seem a slight difference, such small shifts can make a big difference. After all, Bellini seems to have composed 'Casta Diva' in the key of G but changed it to a tone lower at Pasta's request.

So searching for a completely authentic pairing of voices for Norma and Adalgisa would seem to be an impossible quest. But for their performances of Norma English Touring Opera have gone some way towards reassessing the casting of the leading female roles. ETO are performing Norma in concert as part of their Spring season celebrating their 30th Anniversary. Norma is being performed alongside stagings of The Magic Flute and Katja Kabanova, plus a childrens opera. We caught Norma at Cadogan Hall on Monday 27 April 2009, where the company's rare excursion in central London had brought a full house. (ETO normally perform at the Hackney Empire.)

ETO had taken an interesting stance on the casting. As Adalgisa they had Alwyn Mellor, a jugend-dramatisch soprano. (Mozart's Elettra, Chyrsothemis, Ariadne and Senta are already in her repertoire.) She was partnered by the Norma of Yvonne Howard, a mezzo-soprano currently trying out soprano roles; she has sung Lady Macbeth and Leonora (Fidelio).

Howard and Mellor were partnered by the Pollione of Justin Lavender and the Oroveso of Piotr Lempa. The chorus and orchestra of English Touring Opera were conducted by Michael Rosewell.

Howard was a real surprise as Norma. Granted she does not have the brilliant gleaming top of a Sutherland or Caballé. But her voice is relatively soft grained, attractively warm and has a flexible and well controlled high extension. At no point in the evening did she sound like a mezzo-soprano pushing her voice to its ultimate. On the contrary, she turned in a performance notable for its control, phrasing and well modulated musicality.

She sang the long lines of 'Casta Diva' with a good sense of line, but when it came to the faster sections she was equally flexible and dextrous. The passagework in this aria can be difficult to negotiate for big voices and Howard came through the trial with flying colours.

It was Howard's entrance which raised the emotional level of the performance. Piotr Lempa had contributed a stiff but correct Oroveso; he has a fine voice and just needs a good director to loosen him up a little. And Justin Lavender's Pollione had been impassioned in his opening scene but his voice had a husky, veiled quality and it lacked the open throatedness which is needed in this role. Lavender's Pollione was robust rather than suave and his sense of line was inclined to be bumpy.

Though this was a concert performance the singers were without scores and made entrances and exits. Howard added to this a passionately moving dignity of demeanour. She and Mellor developed a strong rapport and I would have loved to hear them in a staging. Both sopranos were dextrous with their passagework, with Mellor singing with gleaming tones and Howard contributing softer grained warm phrases. In the trio at the end of Act 1 you felt that Adalgisa and Norma came over as the stronger characters and almost seemed to dominate Lavender's Pollione.

Howard was profoundly moving in Norma's scene opening Act 2 where she contemplates killing her children. This was followed by the wonderful long scene between Norma and Adalgisa. It was here that having a soprano Adalgisa came into its own; Howard and Mellor's delivery was both passionate and balanced vocally. Howard's duet with Lavender later in the act was perhaps rather less striking because Lavender's voice did not match Howard's in beauty and openness of tone.

Michael Rosewell conducted ETO's regular orchestra and chorus. This meant that the singers were accompanied by an orchestra which included less than twenty strings. Inevitably Rosewell's interpretation seemed to reflect that lithe and incisive orchestral sound. Whilst his speeds were rarely too brisk, there was something a little no-nonsense in his attitude and I longed for a little more relaxation in the pace. That said, the wind players contributed some fine solo moments.

The small chorus (ten women, eight men) worked incredibly hard. Both Clothilde (Helen Johnson) and Flavio (Charne Rochford) doubled as chorus members. The men of the chorus were particularly notable for how they developed such a fine broad sound in the choruses.

Cadogan Hall is quite a lively space acoustically. Rosewell and his ensemble did not seem to quite have the measure of it, and there were a few passages where the orchestra seemed to dominate.

The ETO Orchestra and Chorus contributed a performance which was always creditable and sometimes impressive. But what lifted this performance out of the ordinary was the passionate and musical performance from the soprano soloists. London was only a stop on the tour: ETO have already performed Norma in Cheltenham, Poole and Exeter, and will be performing it in Cambridge and Ulverston.

Copyright © 30 April 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK









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