Though Annemarie Kremer makes a highly impressive company debut in the title role and chorus and orchestra respond splendidly to Oliver von Dohnanyi’s conducting, Opera North’s Norma is a difficult production to like. Despite its popularity in the post-Callas era, Norma is a problematic opera and Christopher Alden’s production never sees a problem but it adds another one.
It’s widely held that opera plots are usually silly, but many create a remarkable emotional involvement despite this. Norma needs a bit of help! Norma is a druidess in Gaul, daughter of head druid Oroveso. She has two children by Pollione, head of the occupying Romans, but none of the other druids have noticed. Now Pollione turns his attentions to Adalgisa, a young priestess, who innocently tells Norma all about it. After that it’s just a question of who ends up on the funeral pyre.
There are some wonderfully dramatic musical moments, notably at the climax to each act, thrillingly realised by von Dohnanyi and the orchestra, but essentially this is a love triangle, with the sympathetic relationship between Norma and Adalgisa as important as the women’s with Pollione. Christopher Alden favours turned backs, lying on the floor at a distance from each other, even rolling over and over in mid-duet, and it is not helpful!
Nor is his updating of the action. Certainly the robes-and-fillets approach to druids can be heavy going, but an updating must be appropriate. These druids appear to be a cult heavily influenced by the Amish and the Shakers, but rather less Christian, given to long spells of stillness interspersed with sudden unexplained arm movements and doing odd things with coats and sacks. At times Alden seems simply perverse: why, for instance, does Oroveso spend all Act 1 listening to what’s happening without hearing any of it? And why is Pollione done up like the villain in a Victorian melodrama?
Generally the musical picture is much happier. Maybe Norma ideally needs a more dominant and emotionally charged stage personality than Annemarie Kremer provides, but after an attractive, but slightly light-weight, start, she sings with impressive stamina and intelligence and ever increasing authority and commitment. Luis Chapa’s passionate, if slightly strained, style as Pollione proved an early hit with an unusually impressible first night audience, well armed with “Bravos”, but his most elegant singing comes much later in his last act duet with the excellent Kremer. The third Opera North debutant, Keri Alkema, selflessly suffers Alden’s excesses without disturbing her vocal assurance, her voice combining admirably with Kremer’s in their duets. James Creswell’s Oroveso fields a steady and sonorous bass and settles on a single facial expression as the wisest course.