Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece Norma was once a staple of the operatic stage, performed by great sopranos such as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland on a regular basis. Nowadays, despite containing one of the most famous arias of all time, it is performed less frequently. Opera North last staged the work in 1986, but following their recent success with Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, have mounted a new production starring Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer.

Opera North’s Norma: Annemarie Kremer as Norma and Luis Chapa as Pollione with the Chorus of Opera © Alastair Muir
Opera North’s Norma: Annemarie Kremer as Norma and Luis Chapa as Pollione with the Chorus of Opera
© Alastair Muir

The opera tells the story of the druidess Norma, a powerful female leader whose people desire revolt against the occupying Roman forces. Pollione, the Roman proconsul, has two children with Norma, but has fallen out of love with her and now favours Adalgisa, a young priestess from the temple. Distraught, Norma considers killing her children before finally vowing to immolate herself. At the last moment, Pollione realises that he loves her after all and they go to the funeral pyre together.

Opera North have rooted their production firmly in the 1800s, with director Christopher Alden and production designers Sue Willmington and Charles Edwards drawing on a range of nineteenth-century sources. Victorian costumes adorned with pagan symbols are influenced by historical spiritual communities, and there’s a nod to the Romantic movement’s obsession with the natural world. Inspired by ancient druids’ fascination with oak forests, Edwards’ set is dominated by a huge fallen tree that seems to have an irresistible draw for all of the opera’s characters, who clamber on it, sing from it and even meet their deaths on it. From the panelled walls to the carved props, wood covers the entire stage, the only drawback with this being the cast’s tendency to throw it around, creating great clattering thuds that occasionally detract from some of the more subtle musical moments.

Bellini’s score is exquisite: a startling combination of bel canto and heady, dramatic moments. Norma’s most famous aria is, of course, the undeniably glorious ‘Casta Diva’, but the opera is full of these musical jewels. Under the baton of Oliver von Dohnányi, the Orchestra of Opera North sounded incredibly dynamic, veering from the delicately pretty to the booming and powerful, and as soon as the opening Sinfonia’s intense, soaring strings began, I was utterly gripped.

Annemarie Kremer completely inhabited the title role, exploring the psychological depths of the scorned druidess and providing her audience with a performance they could invest in emotionally. It’s a demanding role (some would argue the most demanding in the repertoire) but her vocal performance was both moving and technically skilled. She gave us a delicate, controlled ‘Casta Diva’ with beautiful, sparkling top notes before her anguish at the loss of Pollione allowed her to utilise the darker, more powerful elements of her voice.

The dramatic trio which ends Act I was the perfect example of this, with Kremer resplendent in her rage as her husband’s love for the young priestess was revealed. American soprano Keri Alkema brought a rich, creamy tone to the role of Adalgisa, which blended beautifully with Kremer’s voice both in this trio and in the famous duet ‘Mira o Norma’, one of the highlights of Act II. As the unfaithful husband Pollione, Mexican tenor Luis Chapa had powerful projection but sounded uncomfortable at times and was unable to match the beauty of Kremer and Alkema.

As always, the Chorus of Opera North were magnificent, building from a soft chant to a great emotional wall of sound as the opera drew to a close and Norma and Pollione prepared to face their sacrificial end. Here, the potency of the score combined with skillful direction and production design to create a spectacular, fiery finale as the doomed lovers stepped onto the oak tree and were enveloped by flames. It is hard to imagine that anyone could hear the final heart-wrenching notes of this opera and not be incredibly moved.

As the singers returned to the stage for their curtain call, the warm appreciation of the audience was palpable. Alkema was raucously applauded, and as Kremer took her final bow, she was awarded a standing ovation. It was well deserved, but there should have been one for von Dohnanyi as well, who elicited great strength from the Orchestra of Opera North, drawing every drop of elegance and passion from Bellini’s sensational score. As intriguing as Christopher Alden’s production is, it’s the music that steals this show.