Vancouver Opera

Bellini's NORMA

Dates and Venue 28 November & 1, 3, 5 December @ 7:30 pm | Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Reviewer Davd Powell

The opera is set in the year 50 B.C. in Roman-occupied Gaul. The druid priestess Norma has broken her vows and has had a secret love affair with the Roman proconsul Pollione. They have two children. Unbeknownst to Norma, Pollione has fallen in love with a young novice priestess called Adalgisa, who knows nothing of his alliance with Norma. Norma and Adalgisa learn of Pollione's faithlessness, and the stage is set for a psychological drama of love, fidelity, anger, revenge, reconciliation, forgiveness and finally, sacrifice.

The curtain opened on a striking set: staring across the stage at each other were two imposing stone walls, looking like bombed-out buildings, without windows, beams jutting out. At the back of the stage hung a screen on which were painted (or projected?) three vague forms which at first looked like snow-laden trees, but later became three rather Tolkeinesque mountains, disappearing into the distance. The backdrop was transformed via projected images a number of times during the performance, and by the end of the opera became a decimated forest, and, ultimately, a funeral pyre. I found the ruins very effective, and there were some interesting effects created using lighting, both from within and from outside the walls.

The character of Norma reminds me of Hamlet, tormented yet often unable to act. Hasmik Papian played her very competently and sang beautifully, although it seemed to take her voice a while to warm up. Casta Diva, the opera's signature aria, appears near the beginning of the opera. I'd have loved to have heard it sung again at the end, when she was singing full-tilt. 

The opening of the second act, where Norma tries unsuccessfully to persuade herself to kill her children to protect them from becoming slaves, was extremely moving. Sometimes Bellini's music seems too light to match the emotional agonies of the protagonists, but in this scene it does, and it is some of the best and most profound music in the opera. In this, as in the rest of the opera, the orchestra sounded wonderful.

Margison was vocally fine as Pollione but tonight I didn't find his acting convincing. It was Kate Aldrich, in the role of Adalgisa who stole the show, with her magnificent demonstration of bel canto singing and her deeply-felt portrayal of the anguished novice priestess.

Norma was first performed in 1831 at La Scala in Milan. It is considered by many to be one of the great examples of 'bel canto', a vocal style described in the program notes as "elegant, refined, agile, and showy".

© 2009 David Powell