Opera Great Expectations

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Opera Great Expectations


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


Norma Opera North, Grand Theatre, Leeds, and on tour until 10 March Bellini's Norma is an opera that I not only adore: it obsesses me, too. Whenever I listen to it, I have to hear it again very soon, and parts of it lodge in my mind, playing over and over again, to an extent that very few other pieces do. It was the work through which I first came to realise Callas's lonely greatness, and it was through her that I came to see how great Italian opera could be, too, having childishly dismissed it tout court as superficial compared with the great German traditions. I still think that Norma operates on a level different from any other work by Bellini or his contemporaries, or even, I am inclined to think, Verdi. The only Italian composer who rivals it for purity and passion is Monteverdi, to whom Bellini owes nothing and has no resemblance.

The trouble for the opera-goer is that Norma is almost never performed. The new and mainly excellent production by Opera North is the first opportunity I have had to review it in the 16 years I've been writing for The Spectator. Everyone quotes Lilli Lehmann's remark that she would rather sing three Brunnhildes than one Norma, but I am not sure that singers are as scared of it as managers are. Bellini doesn't command devotion from operatic hoi polloi, unless there is a superstar in the cast. And most of the post-Callas superstars have done more to harm his reputation than to enhance it.

Only Leyla Gencer, within living memory, can be compared for the comprehensiveness of her interpretation of Norma with Callas, and she never sang it in the UK.

Opera North gets off to a good start by stating, on its title page, that the production is 'in homage to the great Maria Callas'. No one will expect the singer of Norma to match up to Callas, one can at most hope that, like her, singers will realise how intensely passionate Bellini is, and what art there is in expressing that in uniquely fluid melodic lines, or sometimes in lines that don't even reach the melodic, as if the suffering Bellini gives his characters to express is too much to be rendered beautiful - that happens for page after page of the sublime finale.

The Dutch singer Annemarie Kremer doesn't have a great voice, or an especially lovely one; but she is continuously, unexaggeratedly expressive, and she is prepared to take risks with it, almost all of which came off on the opening night. …

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