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Norma (London Coliseum)

English National Opera imports Opera North's 2012 staging of Bellini's bel canto masterpiece

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Marjorie Owens in the title role of Norma (ENO)
©Alastair Muir

Last week I read a disposable thriller. I forget the title. It was fast-moving and action-packed, but it left me cold because I had nothing invested in characters.

There's something of the so-what about this Norma, too. Director Christopher Alden provides intimidation, castration and immolation, but it's impossible to care because he works so hard at keeping his audience at arm's length from any emotional involvement.

Not that the opera helps. Bellini's bel canto tunefest has a risible storyline that cries out for sensitive reinvention in order to work as drama. Among the Druids of ancient Gaul a senior and a junior priestess lust after the same Roman proconsul. Anyone with a passing acquaintance of Asterix and Obelix will know that such alliances end badly; but it's the director's job to help us find rapture in the ridiculous. For that, Alden is not your man.

He updates the hoary tale to mid-nineteenth-century Hicksville, USA and sets it in a barn. A vast tree trunk is suspended from the ceiling and, in the staging's only nod to variety, the Druid leader Oroveso (James Creswell, moonlighting from The Magic Flute) tips it up and down a bit from time to time. For the rest, unintended mirth is the order of the day, from Clothilde's ever-brandished sickle to Norma's mad-eyed axe-wielding. The heroic ENO Chorus is given little to do but sing a bit, lurk a lot, drop tattered garments in a heap and then promptly retrieve them. (And yet who, as it faces death by bean counter, would deny this proud body the exultant applause it deservedly received at the final curtain?)

'A languid squirm'

Not for the first time, a director opts for a minimal set (designs by Charles Edwards) only to be confounded by his own space. So Alden takes refuge in a succession of overripe visual clichés. Aside from the tree, all he gives himself to play with are the usual job lot of wooden chairs, ripe for chucking, while floundering characters cling to walls or else wilt gracefully against them before sliding to the floor for a languid squirm. And I've never seen quite so many coats flung to the ground in anger. That'll teach them.

All of which might make my third star seem over-generous; but we haven't got to the singing. And wow. The title role is a tour de force that needs a force of nature to carry it off, and in Marjorie Owens ENO has one. The soprano, one of three Americans in the cast (a fourth, the workaday conductor, Stephen Lord, labours in the pit) has a voice that soars from nought to eighty with a dazzling amplitude and unchanging beauty, then repeats the trick tirelessly across three hours. Sure, there's a hint of monotony about her unflinching tone and a lack of clarity to her delivery of George Hall's translation, but this thrilling artist is an Isolde in the making.

The same can be said of her rival in love, the priestess Adalgisa, even though mezzo Jennifer Holloway has been directed to do little but fade like last week's lily. Her timbre is easy on the ear and blends sweetly with Owens in their ineffable duet "Oh! rimembranza!"; moreover, unlike her compatriot she has impeccable diction.

Creswell is the sole survivor from the production's Opera North debut and is predictably a tower of strength, while Peter Auty, the only Brit among the four principals, is in ringing form as Pollione. It's not his fault that the love-rat Roman is given to wandering like a zombie through scenes that do not involve him. His fellow tenor Adrian Dwyer is the unfortunate victim of emasculation; Valerie Reid the sickle-totin' Clothilde. Hapless as the staging is, everyone goes for broke - and they very nearly fix it.

ENO's Norma continues in repertoire at the London Coliseum until 11 March.