In Roman- occupied Gaul pagans look to their druidess Norma (Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer) to lead them against their oppressors. But the scene is set for tragedy - Norma is the lover of Roman proconsul Pollione (Luis Chapa) unaware that he has been unfaithful with the novice Adalgisa (Keri Alkema).
Productions of Bellini’s Norma are preceded by its reputation as the highest achievement of the ‘bel canto’ movement in which music and drama merge in perfect union conveyed in the voices of the performers. This requires a cast of virtuoso singers who can also act. Opera North succeed in the former but less so in the latter- as with many operas the movement of the cast is stiff and lacks fluidity.
But all three of the principals are superb singers. Bellini’s score blends almost overpowering drama with deep lyricism, which is reflected in Kremer’s Norma. Her voice races up and down the scales giving a powerful invocation of faith in the aria "Casta Diva." During Adalgisa’s confrontation with her lover Alkema seems to be using her voice as a weapon to drive home his duplicity. Chapa is a swaggering self-absorbed Pollione casually committing blasphemy by sitting astride the sacred oak. Individually the voices are impressive but over-lapping, in the dramatic trio that ends act one, they are amazing.
Director Christopher Alden unwittingly undoes some of the work of the cast. He sets the opera in the industrial revolution with the pagans as workers and the Romans as industrialists. It might work if details from the original did not keep creeping in.
But it is distracting to wonder why, in an industrial setting, the workforce is waving sickles, gathering mistletoe and stroking a tree. In Charles Edwards’ set a single massive oak, that has been severed and placed in a barren warehouse, replaces the sacred wood referred to in the libretto. This sets a mood of defeat over the opera giving the impression that the workers’ struggle has already been lost so we never really believe they might be able to over-throw their oppressors.
Opera North’s Norma is a flawed but fantastic version of a classic opera.