Back in the 1950s and 60s, Vincenzo Bellini's Norma was one of the standards of the repertoire, putting in regular appearances at the world's top opera houses. It was a staple role for Maria Callas, who performed the opera 89 times. But Norma (and indeed the rest of Bellini's work) seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years: performances are rare compared to the blanket coverage of the best known Verdi and Puccini operas.

This may be partly because the title role is so ferociously difficult. The soprano is expected to reproduce a terrifyingly long list of emotions and characters: the angry jilted lover, the sibyllic interpreter of God's predictions, the tender mother faced with the choice of whether to murder her small children or allow them to face a life of downtrodden slavery, the mother superior dealing with the tribulations of a young novice. All this has to be done while producing a fair dose of coloratura fireworks and maintaining the vocal purity demanded by the bel canto style of Bellini's time. The part was perfectly suited to Callas with her overwhelming command of the stage, and the memory of her performances casts a long shadow over anyone attempting the role today.

I have first hand experience of this in that my mother and father took me to see Callas sing Norma in Paris in the 1960s when I was just seven years old, so I went to Grange Park's performance on Friday with mixed expectations: Norma is one of my very favourite operas, full of glorious melodies, set-piece arias and wonderful ensemble parts, but an English country house production couldn't be that good, could it?

The answer was a resounding yes. Claire Rutter's singing of Norma was superb, with clear diction, plenty of expression and beautiful tone: Rutter was also able move the dynamics from the soft and intimate to the loudest fortissimi (in the showpiece aria Casta Diva) without losing expression, intonation or tone. Her acting was more than credible throughout the range, and in satisfying contrast to a Callas-like performance, I felt that I was there to see and hear the character of Norma rather than to see and hear Claire Rutter. The novice Adalgisa was sung wonderfully and with equal power by Sara Fulgoni: Bellini writes soprano/mezzo duets better than anyone (see a previous review), and the duets between Rutter and Fulgoni achieved a truly magical blending of the voices.

I was less than impressed by the staging: the idea of the opera as kitchen-sink drama with Norma offering Adalgisa a consolatory glass of water from the kitchen tap didn't grab me, nor did the Gaulish warriors brandishing replica assault rifles while watching back-projected black and white newsreels of insurrection. And I was simply dumbfounded by the decision to make the large turntable on the set rumble noisily through a full 360 degree turn while Norma and Pollione sing Qual cor tradisti, the most intimate duet in the whole opera.

Ultimately, though, the staging didn't distract too much, and Rutter deservedly received a rapturous standing ovation. Somewhat unfairly, I thought, the audience were considerably less generous in their applause for the conductor Stephen Barlow, who didn't put a foot wrong in conducting the English Chamber Orchestra with verve, passion, balance and feel for every phrase. I was enthralled by their playing all the way from the first few bars of the overture. Bellini's operas have some tendency to cross the line from drama to melodrama - it's partly the details of the plot (to give one example, sparing the innocent children of captured enemy commanders may have seemed humane and noble in post-Enlightenment Italy, but in 1st Century BC Gaul, the only shadow of question over what to do to them would have been the choice of murder weapon), and partly the irrepressible cheerfulness which, delightful as it is, can exude from Bellini's music at moments where it's really not right for the story. But the music is simply glorious: half a dozen of the tunes have been running through my head continuously for the three days since the performance. Played and sung with this level of quality, the music melded into the drama and made this performance of Norma one of my most memorable evenings at the opera in many years.

David Karlin
6th July 2009

Photo by Alastair Muir, courtesy of Grange Park Opera