Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is a rare sight on Norwegian stages: the opera was last staged here well over a century ago. Norway can hardly be said to be an operatic superpower, but it is still curious that such a cornerstone of 19th-century Italian opera would remain so obscure. Now, at long last, Norma has clawed her way back, and although Sigrid Strøm Reibo’s new production of Bellini’s Gaulish love triangle left much to be desired, the musical performances mostly managed to transcend the at times puzzling production.

Simon Lim (Oroveso) and Chorus © Erik Berg
Simon Lim (Oroveso) and Chorus
© Erik Berg

In the beginning, it seemed like Strøm Reibo was questioning the very nature of drama. In the first scene, Oroveso appeared in full druid gear, yet the chorus – entering the stage from the auditorium, as if part of the audience – were dressed in varying degrees of contemporary formal wear. Katrin Nottrodt’s vertiginously raked sets were all plywood and scaffolding, surrounded by a neon yellow ring as if signifying a barrier between the world of the audience and that of Ancient Gaul. As the chorus got onto the stage and stepped over the ring, they entered the world of the opera proper, donning shields and capes picked straight out of a 1980s fantasy novel.

Still, any questioning of the nature of drama was over reasonably quickly; the tension between the imagined Gaul of Bellini’s opera and the modern world of the audience dissipated as the chorus arrived onstage. It seemed an interesting touch, yet quite what Strøm Reibo intended with this costume change remained unclear. Not until the final scene did the chorus return to their first costumes, fleeing back to the ‘real’ world as the fictional world of the opera became too much. Up until those final moments, it had mostly been Norma as costume drama.

Hrachuhí Bassénz (Norma) © Erik Berg
Hrachuhí Bassénz (Norma)
© Erik Berg

Esther Bialas’ costumes were, unintentionally perhaps, entomologically themed. Simon Lim’s Oroveso – with his winged and horned helmet, and feather trimmed, patchwork leather cloak – looked rather like a giant moth. Meanwhile, with her ceremonial garb of an iridescent and bejewelled robe and spiked headdress, Hrachuhí Bassénz’s Norma looked more like a flamboyantly terrifying beetle. Arnold Rutowski’s Pollione, clad in gold brocade trousers and leather armour, might have been intended to look like some sort of extravagant weevil, yet his outfit also bore a striking resemblance to the wrapping of a liqueur chocolate.

Strøm Reibo seemed to be more concerned with creating striking tableaux rather than telling a story. As an opera, Norma is quite static and she seemed content to have them standing around, particularly in the many choral scenes. Indeed, much of the non-sartorial visual interest in the production came from video projected onto the set: the projections partly served to locate the action – a forest and various wildlife footage, most memorably an eagle having its way with some kind of fish during the Act 1 trio – and partly to bring orchestral instruments onto the stage, presumably as visual representations of instrumental duet partners.

Arnold Rutkowski (Pollione) and Dshamilja Kaiser (Adalgisa) © Erik Berg
Arnold Rutkowski (Pollione) and Dshamilja Kaiser (Adalgisa)
© Erik Berg

As Pollione, Rutowski was invariably loud, and although he has a fundamentally pleasant voice, if a little pinched at the very top, there was little emphasis on communicating whatever he was singing. Not even towards the very end, pleading for his own execution, did Rutowski look anything other than mildly annoyed. Dshamilja Kaiser’s steely-voiced Adalgisa fared better, with a much more detailed characterisation and actual attempts at acting. Her voice had a nicely metallic edge, and although the very top tended to get a little out of hand at times, her middle register was beautifully burnished. The duets with Norma were particular highlights, their voices curiously melding into one instrument.

There is little doubting the beauty of Bellini’s melodies, but the purely instrumental music is hardly as inspired. Antonino Fogliani made the best of it: the overture had forward drive, heralding the drama to come. The chorus made an impressive sound, particularly in the big war chorus of the second act, although their function onstage was not always easily discerned.

Dshamilja Kaiser (Adalgisa) © Erik Berg
Dshamilja Kaiser (Adalgisa)
© Erik Berg

Getting through the role of Norma – with its sheer length, wildly varying moods and manifold technical and dramatic challenges – and still standing afterwards is no small feat, yet Hrachuhí Bassenz eagerly threw herself at the part. Her voice is perhaps half a size too small for the priestess, yet she was gloriously imperious, fiercely prophesising the end of the Roman Empire one second, quietly anguished about the fate of her lover the next. While her characterisation suffered from a surplus of generic, almost-camp cape twirling and questionable pointing, she more than made up for it with nuanced singing and impressively clear runs.

After her absence from Norwegian stages, it was time for Norma to make her return. On purely musical grounds, it was a success, but bogged down by a curiously incoherent production. Despite the excellent singing of the two female leads, Oslo audiences deserve better.