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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma (1831)
Pollione, the Roman Proconsul: Hugh Smith (tenor)
Oroveso, the High Priest of the Druids: Giorgio Giuseppini (bass)
Norma, High Priestess: Hasmik Papian (soprano)
Adalgisa, young novice priestess: Irini Tsirakidis (mezzo)
Flavio, friend of Pollione: Carlo Bosi (tenor)
Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera
Netherland Chamber Orchestra/Julian Reynolds
Guy Joosten (stage director)
Jorge Jara (costume designer)
Johannes Leiacker (set designer)
Davy Cunningham (lighting designer)
Luc Joosten (dramaturgy)
rec. live, Het Musiektheater, Amsterdam, 2005.
DVD Region 0.
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.
OPUS ARTE OA 0959 D [2 DVDs: 188.00]


I would not always recommend watching the background feature before the full opera to everyone, but in respect of the present production of Norma it is some help in orientating you to what is going on. English conductor Julian Reynolds, who is sensitive to Bellini’s demands in performance, opines that an opera house needs a special reason to mount the work, given its demands upon soloists. That Romanian-born soprano Nelly Miricioiu agreed to sing the title role proved reason enough for De Nederlandse Opera, where she has established a loyal following for her portrayals of the core bel canto roles.

There are several key points to be made about this Norma that set it apart from others one might have encountered. First, Reynolds employs a chamber orchestra of the size Bellini asked for at the work’s La Scala Milan premiere. Second, he restores passages of the score that are commonly cut – to the average listener some may be obvious, some less so. These factors also impact upon the singing heard in the production itself. Reynolds encourages a move away from the statuesque style of bel canto delivery employed by the likes of Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas or Montserrat Caballé to something that betrays more of the human emotion behind the words and action.

The staging concept employed by Guy Joosten and his team is likely to be a major departure from what many viewers will have experienced in the past. The opera is treated almost as a work within a work, the staging is built on the concept of mounting an opera: Norma is the prima donna assoluta, Adalgisa cast as the seconda donna, Pollione as the impresario, etc.   Some may choose to read further into this and identify Norma with Callas, for example. Though the production might encourage this, it is a temptation I felt happy to resist as it adds nothing to ones understanding of the opera that is hinted at in libretto or music.

We are not really told in the background feature why Nelly Miricioiu withdrew from the production or why Lucia Aliberti, who was “in the wings” ready to cover the role did not end up taking it on either. The fact is though that Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian stepped into the breach, much to her credit. Her delivery of the part might not be as vocally individual as Miricioiu’s or Callas’; it tends to be more of the kind of stand and deliver type that the production tried to move away from, but faced with a third Norma no doubt the production team felt fortunate to have one at all. The role has become a core part of Papian’s repertoire, and she does have many of the attributes a singer needs to carry it off respectably: vocal flexibility, a good sense of bel canto line, evenness of tone throughout the range and the staying power to survive the demanding length of the opera.

Irini Tsirakidis, a Greek soprano with a lowish mezzo extension to her voice, takes on the role of Adagisa in more than competent fashion. She complements Papian well vocally and is an accomplished stage actress, though occasionally you may get the feeling she is restrained somewhat by the production itself. The duet “Mira, O Norma”, rather like “Casta Diva”, affect yet do not bring a tingle to my spine as other performances continue to do after years in their company.

Hugh Smith is a seasoned Pollione; and veers towards the throaty, stand and deliver type of bel canto delivery. Despite wanting to make more of the part than purely being the Roman Proconsul, Joosten is thwarted somewhat by Jorge Jara’s traditional armour costumes.  Oroveso and Flavio are solidly sung roles.

For all the attempts to inject something new and different into the work, the totality does not quite come together convincingly enough. Maybe it’s a result of the production going through two Normas too many. Equally, maybe it take more than a single production to convince me that a credible alternative to traditional bel canto style performances can hold its own in direct comparison. For me, the ghost of Callas is hard to shift – be it in her EMI studio recordings from 1954 and 1960 or her live performances of the role.

On DVD though, Montserrat Caballé is the High Priestess above them all. Her performance alongside Jon Vickers and Josephine Veasey on the Hardy Classic Video label is breath-taking for its assurance and insight into the heart of the role. Such nights of greatness do not often happen, so one is all the more grateful for its preservation on DVD.

Evan Dickerson



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