Opera Scotland

Domenico Donzelli, Guiditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi

Norma in Scotland

Posted 7 Aug 2016

Bellini's Norma received its first performance in Scotland on 20 July 1842. This was at the old Glasgow Theatre Royal, on Dunlop Street. The company gave the first Edinburgh performance a few days later (25 July) at the Theatre Royal in Shakespeare Square. The chorus and orchestra were those of the Theatre Royal Dublin.

The soloists had been recruited from London, and the title-role was taken by the brilliant young English soprano Adelaide Kemble (1814-1879). She had studied in Italy with Giuditta Pasta, creator of that great part, seen in the centre of our illustration with Domenico Donzelli and Giulia Grisi. It was as Norma that Kemble had made her debut in Venice in 1838. She returned to Britain in 1841, working extensively at Covent Garden, and retired on her marriage in 1843. While singing may have been a novel choice of career, the theatre was certainly in her blood, and she was considered a great dramatic performer. Her father, the actor Charles Kemble (1775-1854), was particularly good at comedy, but was also an excellent Romeo. Her aunt, Sarah Kemble (1755-1831) is remembered under her married name, Mrs Siddons, as a great tragic actress, especially noted as Lady Macbeth. Adelaide's elder sister Fanny (1809-93) perhaps had the most impressive career of the lot, being as noted for tragedy as she was for comedy.

In 1846, Mr Calcraft, proprietor of the Dublin theatre, brought a second company to Scotland, singing in Italian. The Norma this time was a French soprano, Jeanne Anaïs Castellan.

The Grand Italian Opera, from London, which toured to the Queen's Theatre, Edinburgh in 1861, was led by the great singing actress Therese Tietjens as Norma. She was at her peak, while the Adalgisa, Maria Caradori, was perhaps rather past hers – she had created Bellini's Giulietta in Venice over thirty years before. For the first time we know the name of the conductor – a composer of the Victorian age, Luigi Arditi.

The Covent Garden company that toured a few years later is notable for the fact that the leading soprano, Ida Gilliess, was born in Edinburgh. The company visited Scotland three times from 1868, and travelled north of the central belt, performing Norma and other major bel canto works in Dundee. It was there that she married the company's manager and leading bass, Henry Corri. Where Gilliess only sang alternate evenings, the company's leading tenor, William Parkinson, seems to have been a man of enormous stamina, singing every night of the week.

From 1870 through to 1993, when Scottish Opera mounted the piece, Norma disappeared from the professional repertoire in Scotland. Glasgow Grand did stage it in 1956, influenced by the 1953 Covent Garden revival with Callas. Perhaps still more interesting is an amateur staging in Dundee, in 1892, when a company of local singers engaged the American soprano Giulia Valda, from the Mapleson company, as Norma, with the young Norwegian Otta Brønnum as Adalgisa. The factor that made this possible was the participation of the Arbroath-born tenor Durward Lely, at the height of his international career, as Pollione.

Scottish Opera's excellent staging by Ian Judge featured Jane Eaglen in her first attempt at the title role, with Katherine Ciesinski as Adalgisa, Stefano Algieri as Pollione and Norman Bailey as Oroveso. John Mauceri conducted. The revival in 1997 had Penelope Walmsley-Clark and Frances Ginsberg as Norma, with Anne Mason as Adalgisa. The conductor was Julian Smith.

The first performance of Norma at the Edinburgh Festival was in 2016 - read about it here.

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