An updated Norma for today’s Bordeaux audience

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 07.06.2015

The Bordeaux Opéra Nationale has been packing its 18th-century Grand Théâtre for a week of sellout performances of Norma, the great Vincenzo Bellini opera on which much of his reputation rests. The signature aria, “Casta Diva” still brings the house down 184 years after its opening in Milan.

One more Bordeaux performance is scheduled for Tuesday (June 10). 

The role of Norma is considered a great platform of the lyric repertoire, and the South African Elza van den Heever makes the most of her abilities in this production. It is an opportunity for truly bravura singing, with demands on the soprano for accuracy in the upper reaches, concentration in rapid passages and sheer endurance for the two hours and 30 minutes of music.

As Miss van den Heever and her mezzo partner Jennifer Holloway would probably be the first to admit, however, this low-budget production is a rather pale effort compared to the sparkling extravaganzas that featured Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland and the chorus in full costume some 40 or 50 years ago. Only the orchestra, conducted by Music Director John Flore, seemed totally up to the mark. The Bordeaux pit was marvelous. 

Director Christopher Alden chose to remove most of the original ambiance by relocating the time and place of this story. Norma is a complex character, a goddess, a priestess, a noble leader and a secret lover of the Roman enemy Pollione. She nearly murders the two children they produced, but collapses in grief before harm is done. In the end, she is burned at the stake.

This drama seems watered down in Alden’s update. His version takes place in the mid-19th century, around the time the opera was first produced. “We decided that showing our cast dressed in (Roman) peplum costumes would have created too great a distance with today’s public,” he wrote in his program notes. 

His solution was to transport the action to a rural landscape, “like certain areas of the north of England or Wales, where some communities were still practicing druid rites.”

The stage has one major prop – a giant tree trunk that rises and descends on cables. Singers climb over the furniture and the trunk, sometimes perilously. Much of the second act is performed on a stage virtually bare. Costumes are intentionally dark and dreary, as befits the druid style. 

These quibbles seem to be at odds with the audience reception. Multiple curtain calls and rhythmic clapping kept the cast marching forward for more and more bows over ten minutes. Miss van den Heever and Miss Holloway were particularly appreciated.

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