Opera Scotland

Norma 2016Edinburgh International Festival

Read more about the opera Norma

The opera programme of the 2016 Edinburgh Festival featured two imported stagings, firstly of Bellini's Norma and then of Così fan tutte. The first was a surprising rarity difficult to bring off and receiving its first Festival showing. What made the prospect even more welcome was a chance to see, in the title role, Cecilia Bartoli, renowned for her pioneering work in the revival of unknown operatic repertoire.

In a career lasting nearly thirty years, it was surprising that the great Italian mezzo had not previously sung at the Edinburgh Festival, or indeed in Edinburgh at all. Her only Scottish appearance was a decade before when she appeared in a superb concert of rare baroque music in Glasgow. That event showed her to be a very special performer, with huge resources of energy that she could concentrate into projecting the meaning of every word she uttered.

Bartoli has been a leading pioneer in the restoration of the work of many of the 18th and 19th century masters. She made her reputation with Rossini and Mozart before moving on to Handel, Vivaldi and other discoveries. She recorded some Bellini songs early on, but it is in the past decade that she has turned to his operas, as an adjunct to her researches into the short career of Maria Malibran. Her recording of La sonnambula was a surprise, taking a light soprano part and remoulding it entirely. Norma presented an even greater challenge - an iconic role for great, and rare, dramatic sopranos who also retained the technical ability to tackle the fearsome difficulties of the music. Few have succeeded.

As for this Norma, not least among the successes of Bartoli's interpretation was the fact that there was not the slightest temptation to think back to those great singers of the past. For the present, Bartoli's Norma is a phenomenon that Edinburgh is very lucky to have seen. There is much vocal variety in the part, and she was equal to all those challenges, with page after page of soft singing to contrast with the many fiery elements. In this, the second of three performances, Bartoli made the wide spaces of the Festival Theatre seem as intimate as a domestic living room.

The supporting cast matched her in every way. Tenor John Osborn, who made a very strong impression as Arnold in Rossini's William Tell at the 2014 Festival, was every bit as good as expected. Pollione is an awkward role to characterise (the Victorian terms 'cad' and 'bounder' come to mind). There are also vocal challenges requiring heroic tone, but few tenors produce as much sweet, subtle phrasing as Osborn did.

For most of the twentieth century, the role of Adalgisa was allotted to mezzo-sopranos, who took the lower lines in duet, and sounded, indeed sometimes looked, rather older than Norma herself. This can now be seen as a misguided policy. The opera works so much better when she is played as a young, naive girl with a clear, lyric soprano voice. Rebeca Olvera filled the part convincingly.

The three other soloists made their parts seem rather more important than usual. The conductor, Gianluca Capuano, was initially the chorus master, taking over the podium at a late stage, but he showed himself ideal as a conductor in this repertoire. Tempi were generally brisk, so when they were slower than usual, as in the duet for Pollione and Adalgisa, the extra emotion generated came over strongly. The thoroughly researched critical edition of the score, prepared by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi, introduced an altogether new sound world for this repertoire, with the introduction of a tangy 'original instrument' colouring. There was a marked attempt to recreate an effect that might have been recognised in 1831.

And what of the production? The Norma staging was by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, the team whose work has been seen in the recent Scottish Opera Carmen and the earlier Belle Hélène. Now directors of international repute, they first produced this Norma at the 2013 Salzburg Whitsun Festival. Dramatically, things could hardly have been more different from the traditional style. They clearly thought out the concept thoroughly and the result was intriguing, surprising, and a near-total success, with the setting updated to France during the second world war Occupation, the Druids becoming Resistance fighters operating out of a school building. Such updates frequently cause more problems than they solve, and initially, of course, there were elements that jarred - Oroveso sending Norma off to consult the moon-goddess, for one. But the challenges were met head-on, with the very fast overture used to show three tableaux that immediately placed us securely in the context. Even a small touch like the disappearance early on of Pollione's companion Flavio - victim of a lynch-mob - adds depth.

While they may have been infrequent, Edinburgh Festival performances of operas by this supreme composer of the early 19th century have certainly been notable on their own terms. First came Sonnambula (1957) by La Scala featuring Callas and Scotto. The Festival debut of Joan Sutherland came in Puritani (1960). Later we had one of the first modern revivals of Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1967 with Pavarotti and Moffo conducted by Abbado). Finally came the even rarer Straniera in 1972, also with Scotto. It is good at long last to be able to add this very distinguished and memorable Norma to that list.

Read more about the fascinating performance history of Norma in Scotland here

Buy this recording of Cecilia Bartoli as Norma.

Performance Cast

Oroveso Archdruid, father of Norma

Péter Kálmán

Flavio a centurion

Reinaldo Macias

Pollione Roman Pro-consul in Gaul

John Osborn

Norma High Priestess of the druid temple

Cecilia Bartoli

Adalgisa a virgin of the temple

Rebeca Olvera

Clotilde Norma's confidante

Liliana Nikiteanu

Performance DatesNorma 2016

Map List

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

5 Aug, 19.15 7 Aug, 19.15 9 Aug, 19.15

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