A community in crisis; duplicitous bosses fleecing the workers; axe-wielding; self-sacrifice. No, not the current travails of English National Opera and its threatened chorus, but the plot of Bellini’s Norma as reimagined by Christopher Alden for the company’s very first staging of this bel canto masterpiece. That first phrase, ‘community in crisis’, is actually the strapline chosen to encapsulate the opera in ENO’s seasonal marketing campaign, and here the action is relocated from Roman-occupied Gaul to an unspecified 19th-century peasant community where an old religion still holds sway. Pictures in the programme suggest a parallel with the Amish, and Alden depicts the ‘Romans’ as top-hatted land-owners shown extracting their tithes or taxes from the down-trodden populace.

Marjorie Owens (Norma) © Alastair Muir | ENO
Marjorie Owens (Norma)
© Alastair Muir | ENO

But it goes to show that the setting is really neither here nor there in this opera. What matters is the interaction of the characters, and Charles Edwards’ spare, barn-like set, dominated by the suspended carved trunk of a sacred oak, gives them plenty of space in which to express themselves. The opera is about personal crisis as much as a societal one – two women emotionally tortured by a fickle lover from the enemy camp who can’t decide between them, and the resulting betrayal of their religious office as virgin priestesses. “Tender children,” Norma muses as she caresses the axe with which she is planning to kill her illegitimate offspring; in the end only her own death at the burning stake can save her people. Boldly but atmospherically lit by Adam Silverman, Alden’s staging, first seen at Opera North in 2012, is as compelling to watch as it is to hear.

Marjorie Owens (Norma) and Peter Auty (Pollione) © Alastair Muir | ENO
Marjorie Owens (Norma) and Peter Auty (Pollione)
© Alastair Muir | ENO

One of the undoubted reasons why ENO has tackled so little bel canto opera over the decades is the question of language: the company’s English-only policy is arguably unhelpful to a melody-rich repertoire so wedded to the open vowel sounds of Italian. George Hall’s newly commissioned English translation can’t get round that fundamental issue, but it manages to combine immediacy and intelligibility with a serious tone that together communicate the essence of the original. Thus Norma’s most famous aria “Casta diva” becomes “Virgin goddess”, sung here with mellifluous ease by the American soprano Marjorie Owens, making her ENO debut as the druidess. The role has been dubbed the most challenging in the repertoire (Wagnerian star of the turn of the 20th century Lilli Lehmann claimed she’d rather sing all three Brünnhilde parts from the Ring), but Owens’ ability to float Bellini’s extended melodies, together with her stream of refulgent tone, puts her in the premier league of today’s dramatic sopranos.

She had her match, in more ways than one, in Jennifer Holloway as Adalgisa, Norma’s fellow priestess and rival for the affections of the Roman proconsul Pollione. Her nimble, warm-toned mezzo gave the character credibility and some of the most sublime singing of the evening was to be found in her duetting with Owens, the two voices blending to perfection. As the disreputable Pollione himself, Peter Auty was commanding of tone, though his habit of approaching so many notes with a swoop up from below could do with being checked. As Norma’s father Oroveso, James Creswell was star billing: a sonorous and sympathetic assumption. Valerie Reid’s Clotilde and Adrian Dwyer’s Flavio were also commendable.

Peter Auty (Pollione) and Jennifer Holloway (Adalgisa) © Alastair Muir | ENO
Peter Auty (Pollione) and Jennifer Holloway (Adalgisa)
© Alastair Muir | ENO

One of the constant criticisms of Bellini’s operatic writing is the lacklustre role he gave to the accompanying orchestra. Yet under the direction of American conductor Stephen Lord, the ENO orchestra sang out in its own way, with colourful wind obbligatos and plenty of rhythmic energy driving the drama onwards. The final word, though, must go the embattled ENO Chorus, which once again proved its vital role in the company in singing of both power and lustre – it fully deserved the extra curtain call at the close when Alden ushered them all into the foreground.