For some inexplicable reason, opera directors today seem obsessed with updating traditional mise-en-scènes in the guise of contemporary relevance and a time leap of one or two hundred years is now almost de rigeur. Directing Arabella at the Salzburg Festival in 2014, Florentine Klepper prodded the plot by a tolerable 50 years, but her new production of Norma in Graz jumps over two millennia. In pursuit of relevance, the result was spectacularly inapposite.

Instead of the temple to Irminsul in a sacred forest of the Druids c.50 BC, the curtain opened to reveal a bombed out basement which could have been anywhere from the Bronx to Beirut. Martina Segna’s stage design was somewhere between West Side Story and the barricades in Les Misérables. In lieu of priestesses, acolytes, warriors, ceremonial hangers-on and hirsute pre-Christian barbarians, there was a ragbag of revolutionary misfits, street layabouts and fanatics wielding semi-automatic rifles. Norma is no longer a mystical, prophetic High Priestess but more like the lady mayoress of a besieged local council who dabbles in hocus pocus.  “Sedizio se voci” was proclaimed not from the sacred druidical stone but at a lectern, speech notes in hand, to a riffraff of inattentive malcontents.

In a programme interview, Klepper claimed “the longing for strong political leadership and a spiritual community seems very contemporary” but other than a few temper tantrums, this Norma had the potenza of a pushy Girl Guides patrol leader. The spiritual element was non-existent – only Norma, Adalgisa and Clothilde occasionally wore any semblance of religious vestments. Norma’s children kept popping up unexpectedly and by their height, it would appear that High Priestess and pro-Consul had been enjoying illicit relations for about three years before the rapacious Romans invaded.

During “Casta Diva”, two enormous incense-swinging figures materialized, one a giant man of straw and the other a gargantuan goat with a pork-pie hat in its mouth. The mystique and magic of the glorious cavatina was reduced to a circus sideshow.

With such meaningless chaos on the stage, it was left to Bellini’s sublime music to justify the new production. Leading the Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester, Robin Engelen kept a brisk pace with some particularly good brass and wind playing. In the “Guerra, Guerra” chorus, trumpets in the top gallery gave strident support to excellent ensemble singing. Engelen seemed to revel in the more rhythmic sections of the score, although the lyrical passages were not entirely without merit. As much of the staging was towards the back of the spartan set, the orchestral balance often subsumed the singers. Considering Bellini’s orchestration is hardly the primary interest of the opera, this was regrettable. Also lamentable was Engelen’s decision to cut the da capo in the great “Si, fino all’ore” duet and the customary rallentando on “per ricovrarci” was barely discernable.  

On the whole, the singers were acceptable without being exceptional. Serbian Sonja Šarić sang a pleasing Clotilde and Armenian Tigran Martirossian’s Oroveso was strong in resonance and projection although lacking in subtle phrasing. Kazakh tenor Medet Chotabaev sang the caddish Pollione with a clean, forward placed technique and a clarion top register. A stentorian high C on “sensi” in “Meco all’altar” was Corelli-esque. Perhaps as a result of his nifty cobalt blue Star Trek space suit, Chotabaev’s acting was more detached extra-terrestrial than temporally plausible.

The most pleasing performance came from German Dshamilja Kaiser as Adalgisa. Kaiser is a mezzo who not only has outstanding acting skills but the depth of vocal technique to sing both bel canto and Brangäne. A rich, mellifluous timbre, especially in the middle range, was consistently impressive. The double octave scale starting on top C just before “Mira, o Norma” was immaculately executed and the subsequent delicate entwining of voices the high point of the performance.

The role of Norma is unquestionably one of most taxing in all opera. Russian soprano Irina Churilova has many of the technical requirements but there was tendency to edge up to the top notes and most of the fermate were truncated. The important recitatives were perfunctory with poor diction. “Casta Diva” was commendably restrained with correct pianissimi although the following “Fine al rito” cabaletta was neither maestoso nor absolutely secure. The chromatic scales were somewhat laboured and the climatic top B-flat on “riedi” tentative and slightly pushed. The trills on “Adalagisa fia punita” never rivalled La Stupenda but the long Bellinian phrases, piano passages and mezza voce measures were much more satisfactory. Churilova is certainly no Callas, but it was a courageous endeavour.