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Seen and Heard International Opera Review



Bellini, Norma at Staatsoper Under den Linden, Berlin, 10.11.2006 (GF)

Directed by Annegret Ritzel
Set designs by Johannes Leiacker
Costumes by Katharina Eberstein

Pollione – Zoran Todorovich
Oroveso – Giorgio Giuseppini
Norma – Silvana Dussmann
Adalgisa – Carmen Oprisanu
Clotilde – Brigitte Eisenfeld
Flavio – Florian Hoffmann

Staatsopernchor and Staatskapelle Berlin/Giuliano Carella


Even if we don’t regard Norma as a war opera in the first place, martial activities play an important role in the proceedings and conductor Giuliano Carella had obviously taken this as his starting-point, since right from the beginning he let loose the Staatskapelle’s bellicose inclinations with a force and a power that had one reaching for the programme to see if it was actually an early Verdi opera and not the promised Bellini masterpiece. But it was Bellini and the explosive overture, fast and relentless, gave premonitions of an unusually thrilling but probably unsubtle reading of the score. In the main this was also what it turned out to be: whenever he saw a chance Maestro Carella aimed for maximal intensity and also did what he could to drown the soloists. This latter object largely missed its target, however, since he had reckoned without his cast, whose uniformly glorious singing could ride the orchestra with ease. Maestro Carella should also be credited for actually being quite obliging towards his soloists in many of the lyrical outpourings, notably the long scenes with Norma and Adalgisa. Even though this is generally regarded as Bellini’s masterpiece it has weaknesses: the orchestration is at times quite primitive and there are some tunes that are quite banal. The druids’ chorus at the beginning of act one, for example, and in maestro Carella’s reading it became more mincing than ever, but probably he wanted to get it done with as fast as possible. At the end, after the final eruption, when we had loosened our mental safety-belts, we couldn’t help nodding approvingly to each other, my wife and I, and on the bus back to the hotel we agreed that this was by some distance the most thrilling Norma we had ever heard, whether live or on records. We wouldn’t want to have it served so near the boiling-point every time – some of the poetry inevitably evaporated in the process – but there was still enough left to savour.

The singing, as I have already intimidated, was glorious, not to say sensational. Zoran Todorovich as Pollione, so stylish and handsome and with an acting ability far beyond the average operatic tenor, has developed and expanded his once rather lyrical voice to a fully fledged dramatic voice, big of tone, dark-timbred and dramatic in the bargain. I heard the Norma premiere in Munich less than a year ago on the radio and noticed the difference then but I was still not prepared for this quite astonishing change. At times he sounded more powerful even than Franco Corelli on that legendary second Maria Callas Norma. And his old expertise in turning a lyrical phrase memorably and scale down the voice to an exquisite pianissimo has not deserted him. I met him immediately after the performance and an interview will be published within, hopefully, a few days.

Silvana Dussmann’s Norma was just as impressive. Here was another voice with seemingly limitless powers, with those shining, penetrating top notes in the Birgit Nilsson mould and, at the other end of her compass, ravishing pianissimos to challenge a Montserrat Caballé. Interpretatively nobody can really compete with the unique Maria Callas, but for sheer singing she needs fear no competition from any Norma I know of. This was the last Norma performance at the Staatsoper this season, but I hope, for the good of Berliners and visitors alike, that they will re-invite this Norma and this Pollione, and while they are at it Carmen Oprisanu should also be heard, and seen, as the most girlishly slim and believable Adalgisa imaginable. Seeing her first in silent action, one expected thinner frailer tones coming out of this slender model body, but instead she produced fruity but youthful mezzo-soprano sounds of the highest order. In their duets, and especially “Mira, o Norma” in the second act (Staatsoper regards this as a two act opera), Norma and Adalgisa blended well and maestro Carella obviously thought so too and relaxed to offering them enough space to spin their beautiful cantilenas.

The other soloists have fairly little to do but bass Giorgio Giuseppini as Oroveso sang his role with authority though hardly with bel canto elegance, but that was also in line with the maestro’s approach.


The opera is – originally – set in Gaul during the Roman occupation, about 50 B.C. No director with self-respect seems brave enough nowadays to stick to the original intentions. Annegret Ritzel, when staging this production seven years ago, chose to transport it to something looking like fairly modern times, judging from the costumes. The Druid soldiers arm themselves with Kalashnikovs before the expected Roman attack but Oroveso is still carrying a spear, making him look like a lost Wotan. The stage picture is a flight of stairs with a transparent window-like construction being lowered at the back of the stage when the action is indoors and lifted again when it is outdoors. To the right, whether in- or outdoors, there is a fireplace with a mantel-piece and two modern-looking armchairs. When Norma’s two children, charmingly acted by two cute boys, made their first entrance one of them was carrying a fairytale book with colourful pictures and both children sat together in one of the chairs “reading” and turning the pages, which caused some amused giggling from the audience. The chorus, in the mass scenes, seemed to move around a little at random and I also got the feeling that the soloists were left to their own discretion, but with such electrifying singing and high-voltage playing from a Staatskapelle seemingly on their toes, it didn’t matter much. The sets were rather beautiful and the final scene, when Norma and Pollione are to mount the funeral pyre, was accompanied by evocative flames and smoke seen at the back of the stage.

We have seen more thrilling stagings of this opera but the singing – and playing – saved the day. We wouldn’t want to have Norma served so near the boiling-point every time – some of the poetry inevitably evaporated in the process – but there was still enough left to savour.


Göran Forsling


Pictures © Monika Rittershaus

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)