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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma (1831) [144:00]
Norma – Maria JosŤ Siri
Adalgisa – Sonia Ganassi,
Pollione – Rubens Pelizzari
Oroveso – Nicola Ulivieri
Clotilde – Rosanna Lo Greco
Flavio – Manuel Pierattelli
Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana & Coro Lirico Marchigiano 'V. Bellini’/Michele Gamba
Directors – Luigi Di Gangi e Ugo Giacomazzi
Set Designer – Federica Parolini
Costumes – Daniela Cernigliano
Lighting – Luigi Biondi
Chorus Master – Carlo Morganti
Video Director – Tiziano Mancini
rec. July & August 2016, Arena Sferisterio, Macerata, Italy
Video Format: NTSC16:9; Audio Format: PCM 2.0 & Dolby digital 5.1
Subtitles: Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean
Region code: 0 – All regions. Booklet notes in Italian and English
DYNAMIC DVD 37768 [144 mins]

According to its own publicity material, this production of Bellini’s Norma from the renowned Macerata Opera Festival was described by the Italian press as "a perfect synthesis of cast, direction, sets, lighting and costumes". If it’s not quite as fine as that sounds, it is still a good staging and musically more than serviceable. Norma should not be an especially difficult opera to cast, since its taut libretto has just six named roles, two of them minor. But of course it has a great tradition in the title role, one hard to follow today. Even Anna Netrebko decided a couple of years back, having initially agreed to sing it for Covent Garden, pulled out announcing that her “voice was not developing in that direction”. It was written for Guiditta Pasta of course, who must have been quite some artist given the very taxing part Bellini wrote for her. The Uruguayan soprano Maria Josť Siri rises to most of its demands, vocally and histrionically, without quite convincing us it is the role she was born to sing. In her incomparable entrance aria “Casta diva” she spins a lovely legato line, with good tone, at least until the treacherous leaps at the peak, when some squally moments betray the effort required when her supreme number comes so early in the opera.

Her Pollione, Rubens Pelizzari, is good enough, with a ringing timbre, but suffers from some of the same difficulties, although again only in extremis. It’s a slightly thankless role perhaps, but he looks and acts the part well. The Italian mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi seems to have a near monopoly on the role of Adalgisa on film, appearing on at least three other DVDs in that part in addition to her performance here. On paper she looks like the one piece of unquestioned international calibre casting, and she is very good as always, but the gap between her class and the other leads is not so great as to unbalance the enterprise. Her singing in her duets with Norma is a particular strength, especially Act 2’s “Mira O Norma”, that great tribute to sororial feeling, where she blends perfectly with Siri’s soprano. The Oroveso of Nicola Ulivieri is very solid vocally and has the stage presence needed for the Chief Druid, and Rosanna Lo Greco and Manuel Pierattelli make the most of their small roles of Clotilde and Flavio.

There is the single monumental set to be expected for a large outdoor space like the Arena Sferisterio in Macerata, and its long and high back wall is turned various colours at different stages through the evening. A door opens at the centre of the back, through which during the overture we get an initial glimpse of Norma’s secret family – a High Priestess in Gaul was not supposed to have children by the Roman oppressor. There is little sense of a sacred grove beyond a token tiny copse of barren stumps, and there are only a few drifts of curtain to suggest the interiors, but for all its minimalism the setting does almost all the action requires, even though Norma’s (unseen) gong must be sounded by tugging a red chord tied around that tiny copse. In fact there is abundant use of ropes and “ties that bind”. The lighting is effective in matching dramatic mood and music.

The costumes are generic primitive, simple garments with little adornment beyond a few shreds of what looks like a tattered remnant of a crochet dress added for Norma, Adalgisa and the female chorus. There is no updating – it is refreshing that even the bellicose Act 2 chorus “Guerra, guerra” is for once not a signal to bring on extras in combat fatigues toting Kalashnikovs. The movement succeeds in getting individuals and groups when and where they need to be on the big performing space, mostly unobtrusively. The staging is strongest when it needs to be, at the end. There is a dramatic total fade when Norma admits her guilt, a small pool of remaining light briefly showing her utterly alone in the surrounding blackness. At the end the huge back wall turns a fiery red as the doomed lovers approach the pyre.

This is a very decent Norma, well sung by the principals, for the occasional vocal frailties are no more than we would expect at most live performances of such a work, and do not undermine one’s engagement with the drama. The orchestra and chorus both make good contributions, and conductor Michele Gamba is entirely idiomatic throughout, and manages to keep everyone together (it is said that the Arena Sferisterio pit is so wide that the musicians at one end cannot hear those at the other). The filming is effective, right from the opening shots of the perimeter wall of the Arena on a balmy twilit evening. The basic sound is good, which must have been tricky given the setting, even though the 5.1 surround option makes too little use of the rear channels for my taste, requiring some readjustment. Towards the end I put down the critic’s notebook and just let the drama do its work – which it did.

I have not seen any other Norma on DVD, so cannot offer comparisons. But the latest Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of the work has been released by Opus Arte, conducted by Pappano and with Sonya Yoncheva, Joseph Calleja and, of course, Sonia Ganassi. I heard that live, and its cast will trump this one vocally. But the Macerata Festival is a different kind of event, and anyone lucky enough to be in the Marche that summer of 2016 who decided to get a ticket to this Norma, would have had an excellent evening, of which this is an excellent souvenir.

Roy Westbrook



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