A full house for the opening night of Melbourne Opera’s production of Norma reflected a continuing healthy appetite for bel canto masterpieces. In 2014 a concert performance in the Melbourne Recital quickly sold out when Victorian Opera presented what is generally acknowledged to be Vincenzo Bellini’s greatest work, one that Richard Mills called “one of the greatest of all operas, a vocal tour de force … a remarkable piece on the fate of a female leader constrained by her society.” For that performance, Nicole Car as Norma’s romantic rival, the priestess Adalgisa, was one of the main attractions; this time, the drawcard was another outstanding Australian soprano, Helena Dix, in the title role.
Between them, Melbourne Opera, Victorian Opera and Opera Australia have provided audiences with a succession of singers who have made their name on the international operatic stage at the highest level – from Joan Sutherland, who many consider to be the greatest exponent of the art of bel canto to present day divas such as Jessica Pratt and Emma Matthews. The role of Norma, however, requires very special attributes, as soprano Renata Scotto’s oft-quoted description reveals: “This is the Everest of opera. You want to climb the mountain. You know you are supposed to climb the mountain. But it is so difficult.” And it is not just stamina that is essential to do justice to this role; the whole range of vocal artillery must be available: agility, superb breath control, a wide range capable of producing power without undue visible effort and, above all, a smooth legato line, beautiful tone and musicality. On top of this, the role demands a strong dramatic presence and the ability to project the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by a conflicted leader of her people. It takes a soprano of the rare calibre of Helena Dix to even consider trying to meet these demands, which she did in this production with remarkable success. The gleaming quality of her soft singing alone was more than worth the price of the ticket, but her nuanced musicality was equally rewarding.
The other principal roles are not for the faint hearted either. As Norma’s father Oroveso, the high priest of the Druids, Eddie Muliaumaeseali’i was both vocally and physically imposing. Leading a rousing chorus of protest against the Roman invaders, his sonorous bass resonated with authority and rode above the strong male chorus with apparent ease. It made for a stirring opening scene after a dynamic overture.
Another Australian with a string of international successes, Samuel Sakker was a potent force as Pollione – Roman Pro-Consul and arrogant cad. There is the potential for what is almost a comic moment when Adalgisa confesses her love for a Roman and Norma recognizes a certain pattern of behavior in the way she was won over. It seems an audience cannot help reacting audibly when the moment of truth comes and Norma realizes that she and her two children are about to be abandoned for a younger, more malleable woman. Yet, simply on the basis of the seductive allure of Sakker’s fine-grained, rich tenor, listeners could understand why Norma and Adalgisa might have succumbed to his chat up line. His physical appeal added further credibility to the situation. Although Sakker’s well-projected voice was more ardent than subtle in the opening Act, greater colour and expressiveness emerged in later scenes.
Once again, Jacqueline Dark demonstrated why she is regarded as an exceptionally fine artist. Her Adalgisa was a finely wrought piece of sensitive dramatic acting as she embodied director Suzanne Chaundy’s conception of a priestess who knows her place, ready to bow to Norma’s authority even though she is her confidante. While there was perhaps a little too much deference at times in the soprano/mezzo duets, with Dark providing more a smooth warm current of supporting tone than an equal voice, there were many thrilling moments when her voice soared. There was certainly no lack of emotional intensity in the duets and trios with Dix and Sakker. Although Adalgisa does not have a singing role in the final scene when Norma confesses her crime and goes to the pyre with Pollione, Chaundy’s decision to have her on stage as witness to the events worked well, especially given Dark’s ability to convey grief with quiet dignity.
More problematic was the decision to transplant the action from 50 BCE Gaul to a modern setting with the oppressed populace as machine gun toting partisans. It is difficult to see how this quest for relevance can be justified considering how the interplay of human emotions and competing loyalties essentially transcend time and place. Little is added other than unnecessary distraction. When Norma is on the verge of murdering her sons in an act of despairing revenge, we are aware that the story has its roots in ancient tales such as Euripides’ Medea and is all the more powerful for it. Nevertheless, after the initial shock, it was easy to forget the modern interpretation, partly due to Chaundy’s effective physical deployment of her forces on a fairly cramped stage and a focus on characterization. I noticed a few tears being shed by some members of the audience in the final scene of noble self-sacrifice – a healthy sign that the opera had been allowed to work its magic.
Harriet Oxley’s costume designs played their part in making the setting less jarring. The partisans wore unobtrusive sand-coloured garments while the druids and priestesses wore traditional flowing robes, flattering and graceful in the case of the principal female singers. Even the uniforms of the Roman soldiers tended to blend in with John Collopy’s generally subdued but appropriate lighting design. Dale Ferguson’s streamlined set was skillfully lit, with panels raised in the final scene to reveal the increasing glow of a dramatic flaming pyre.
Under the baton of Raymond Lawrence, the Melbourne Opera Chorus and Orchestra successfully brought Bellini’s wonderfully melodious score to life. Tempi were finely judged as the balance between forward momentum and sufficient elasticity to allow the principal singers to carve out beautifully shaped phrases was maintained. There was some particularly appealing flute work from Penny Holmes as she introduced Norma’s great aria of invocation, “Casta diva”.
It is scandalous that Melbourne Opera receives no government funding. As the imminent winding up of The Production Company indicates, total reliance on box office and generous philanthropists can be hazardous. The fine chorus work and Rebecca Rashleigh’s lovely Clotilde were reminders of the valuable role that Melbourne Opera, in conjunction with the Richard Divall Emerging Artists Program, plays in the development of young operatic talent. As Melbourne Opera goes from strength to strength, presenting unmissable performances such as Norma to enthusiastic audiences, it is time our governments and allied Arts funding bodies stepped up.
Heather Leviston attended Melbourne Opera’s production of “Norma” performed at the Athenaeum Theatre on September 17, 2019.