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A Notable Success

Grange Park Opera's 'Norma',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


A country occupied by a western superpower; the locals worship a different religion. This is frowned upon by the occupying forces; the locals and their religion are regarded as barbaric. The native national identity is bound up in their religion and local resistance is only being held in check by their religious leader. Does this sound like an opera plot? Well if the occupied country is Gaul, the superpower is Rome and the religious leader is a Druid priestess, then of course the opera is Norma.

The plot of Norma has always struck me as one of the most resistant to contemporary updating but Martin Constantine in his new production at Grange Park Opera (seen 3 June 2009) has attempted this tricky task and transported the action to the 21st century with Gaul becoming perhaps a country in Eastern Europe or the Balkans. The nature of the occupying power is kept vague enough that we can populate it with our own political prejudices.

A scene from Bellini's 'Norma' at Grange Park Opera. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir
A scene from Bellini's 'Norma' at Grange Park Opera. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir

During the overture, the set (designer Robert Innes Hopkins) was revealed as a blind, neoclassical arch with an altar in front set amid ruins, everything pretty unspecific regarding time and location. Towards the end of the overture, the arch revolved to reveal Norma (Claire Rutter) in her rather basic accommodation behind. Details here were primitive but firmly contemporary with a shabby sofa, table and chairs, sink and basic electric lighting. The first scene of the opera returned to the altar and the blind arch. The male members of the tribe appeared, all wearing modern work gear, and they proceeded to put on robes and set things up for the opening ceremonies.

Constantine's take on the opera remained true to the libretto and required no violence doing to either character or plot. Instead he made a virtue of Grange Park Opera's small stage and young, enthusiastic chorus. The set gave a feeling of shabbiness and claustrophobia, highly redolent of an occupied country; this wasn't a spectacular Norma. By giving us a contemporary setting Constantine also didn't require the chorus to have to learn to walk and behave convincingly wearing druidic clothes; something which requires learning if it is not to look risible.

For the opening few scenes, I felt that Constantine had applied a little too much method, had created rather too much ritual; so that the chorus and Oroveso (Ernesto Morillo) had to spend rather too much time moving around portentously. Once this ritual requirement was out of the way, Constantine's production settled down into a clear and dramatic telling of Bellini and Felice Romani's story.

Claire Rutter in the title role of Bellini's 'Norma' at Grange Park Opera. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir
Claire Rutter in the title role of Bellini's 'Norma' at Grange Park Opera. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir

It helped, of course, that in Claire Rutter, Grange Park Opera had found a Norma of power and ability. From her first, unprepossessing entrance, Claire Rutter commanded both the Gauls and the stage. She had opted to sing Casta Diva in the original key of G; Bellini wrote the aria in G, but transposed it down to F for Giuditta Pasta, the first Norma, and it is sometimes performed in E. Her performance of the aria displayed a fine sense of line, both rapt and smooth. Her passagework was notably even and she displayed a voice which went all the way to the top, with no awkward timbre changes, uneven breaks or nasty bulges. Technically Rutter proved a fine Norma, particularly as this seems to have been her début in the role; her repertoire ranges from Mozart through bel canto (eg Lucia) to Verdi, including her notable Aida at the London Coliseum.

But Norma is about far more than technique. Rutter proved that she had the ability to dig into the role and use Bellini's music to create real drama; she is far more than a mere canary. Her voice is silvery, verging on the steely at times and if she had a weakness it was the lack of Italianate warmth and generousness in the more positive moments. But this has to be contrasted against a superb feeling both for Norma's predicament and the way Bellini expresses it in his music.

Her Pollione was John Hudson, making a welcome return to Grange Park Opera. Hudson is not the most dynamic of actors, with a tendency to stand and sing. But then again, Pollione isn't the most dynamic, or likeable, of characters; Hudson brilliantly projected Pollione's selfishness and self-involvement. His voice took a little time to warm up, but by the end of Act I he was delivering Bellini's vocal lines with power, commitment and remarkable flexibility given the size of his voice. We are lucky that Bellini wrote Pollione for a tenor with a modern style voice: the role calls for a heavy-ish tenor with no requirements for an awkward upwards extension. Hudson fulfilled the requirements admirably and delivered with rich warm tone.

Sara Fulgoni as Adalgisa and John Hudson as Pollione in Bellini's 'Norma' at Grange Park Opera. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir
Sara Fulgoni as Adalgisa and John Hudson as Pollione in Bellini's 'Norma' at Grange Park Opera. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir

In many ways this was a traditional Norma, particularly when it came to the casting of Adalgisa. At the opera's première both Norma and Adalgisa were sopranos. Though this is sometimes done nowadays, the fact that the two characters have so many duets with Norma singing the upper line has led to a tradition of casting Adalgisa as a lower voice. Here she was sung by the mezzo-soprano Sara Fulgoni. Fulgoni proved to have a lustrously dark mezzo-soprano voice which still had an ease at the top end. Though she sang with a significant vibrato, she and Rutter blended well in the duets.

Fulgoni's Adalgisa was an intense and tormented soul from the very beginning. Through the sequence of duets and ensembles she and Rutter enabled us to brilliantly see the progress of Norma and Adalgisa's relations, whilst giving us some admirable singing. 'Mira O Norma' was a noticeably fine achievement.

I can understand why Constantine and Innes Hopkins decided to put Adalgisa in secular dress in Act II, rather then her white robes as one of Norma's attendants; after all the girl is about to leave with Pollione. But putting Fulgoni into a boxy coat, denim shirt and boots made her looking not only dowdy but rather frumpish and old, which is surely wrong for the character.

Ernesto Morillo as Oroveso in Bellini's 'Norma' at Grange Park Opera. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir
Ernesto Morillo as Oroveso in Bellini's 'Norma' at Grange Park Opera. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir

In Act II, Constantine made it clear that these modern day Gauls were not only religious fanatics but freedom fighters. As Morillo's leather-coated Oroveso addressed them, they proceeded to unpack some fearsome weaponry from underneath the altar. This was Norma translated into a very real, modern context and it enabled Morillo to give us a rather more developed view of Oroveso than the usual rather stock bad tempered father. Morillo was entirely believable as the angry freedom fighter chief.

From this point onwards the opera developed a directness and emotional power which were entirely believable and admirable. Having left the awkward rituals of Act I behind, the chorus were both thrilling and convincing as the angry, religiously inspired freedom fighters. The duet for Norma and Pollione and the closing ensembles were profoundly moving. To his credit Constantine and designer Innes Hopkins attempted a real funeral pyre, with real flames; this did not quite work but it was a creditable attempt at concluding the opera in the right manner.

Chorus members Sally Johnson and Paul Curievici made strong showings as Clothilde and Flavio.

The chorus itself, under chorus master Cathal Garvey made a very positive impression. Their enthusiasm counted for a lot in Constantine's staging. The men in particular were on fine form in their two solo scenes, singing with good warm tones. Notable too was the presence in the chorus of Kevin Wood, whose previous stage appearance was when Pimlico Opera (Grange Park Opera's sister company) staged West Side Story in Wandsworth Prison; a fine example of the way the work of Pimlico Opera and Grange Park Opera interacts.

Stephen Barlow conducted what is a rather dramatic account of the score, but he has a good feeling for Bellini's long paragraphs so that the scenes cohered well into a dramatic whole. I thought however that there was a tendency to dwell too long on the gorgeous moments in Norma and Adalgisa's duets; you can perhaps have too much pleasure.

Claire Rutter as Norma and John Hudson as Pollione. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir
Claire Rutter as Norma and John Hudson as Pollione. Photo © 2009 Alastair Muir

Claire Rutter's Norma will undoubtedly develop; I do hope that we get chance to hear her Norma in London soon. Hers was a fine achievement, and one presented in the context of a very strong ensemble performance. In the past, Grange Park Opera have sometimes proved more adept at performing out of the way rarities than standard repertoire, but here they have scored a notable success.

Copyright © 6 June 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK







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