English National Opera’s new production of Norma marks the first time they have performed Bellini’s famous work in their 85-year history. Directed by Christopher Alden, the production was first performed at the Opera North in 2012 and subsequently in Chemnitz and Bordeaux. Now showing at The London Coliseum, it is musically directed by Stephen Lord, and the outstanding singing and orchestral accompaniment makes up for any shortcomings in its production.
This production is set in a remote rural community in the mid 19th century. The set reflects this but remains static throughout; wood panelled walls and a giant tree trunk hanging from the ceiling. This makes the stage feel very box-like and juxtaposes the grandeur of the Coliseum.
The druids, led by their chief Oroveso (James Creswell), are praying for victory over the invading romans and hope that Norma (Marjorie Owens) will end the peace and revolt against them. Meanwhile, Pollione (Peter Auty) admits he no longer loves Norma and is committing passionate adultery with a junior priestess named Adalgisa. (Jennifer Holloway). Norma is a leading example of the Bel Canto Style, which are operas that celebrate the sung word. English National Opera characteristically sings pieces in English (with English subtitles also) which allows for an even greater understanding of the story and access for all watching.
For the majority of the show the chorus are stationary or performing small movements, but the sheer amount of them means that altogether movements are very powerful. Their choreography beautifully picked up accents in the music and vocally the group are very important to the piece.
Making her UK, ENO and role debut, Marjorie Owens takes the demanding lead role of Norma and does so with ease. Teamed with the incredible vocals of Jennifer Holloway as Adalgisa, make for some wonderful duets between the pair. The tense duet about their lovers is particularly engaging, as the pair do not know they are talking about the same man. It is when the pair sing about forgiving each others wrongdoings and becoming best friends however, that we realise just how complementary the singers’ voices are. At times the drama in Norma is a bit slow, creating an emotional barrier between audience members and the action, but it is undoubtedly the duets between Norma and Adalgisa that add excitement and drama to the production.
Despite the shows length, it is worth watching simply for the performances of the two leading ladies.
Norma is playing The London Coliseum until 11 March. For more information and tickets, see www.eno.org/whats-on
Photo: Alastair Muir