Soloists excel in Chelsea Opera Group’s Norma at Cadogan Hall

The young Richard Wagner, writing in Heinrich Laube’s Zeitung f¸r die elegante Welt during the 1830s, suggested that
German composers should look to learn from the Italians, and particular
from the flowing vocal melodies and bel canto expressiveness of Bellini,
whom he affectionately nicknamed ‘the gentle Sicilian’. Perhaps less
surprisingly, Tchaikovsky, having read the first biography of Bellini,
wrote to a friend, “I have always felt great sympathy towards Bellini. When
I was still a child the emotions which his graceful melodies, always tinged
with melancholy, awakened in me were so strong that they made me cry”.

Despite being standard repertory fare in the 1950s and ’60s, subsequently Norma fell out of favour, perhaps because of the fearsome demands
it makes upon the soprano brave enough to embody the titular Druid
priestess in all her roles – leader, mother, lover. 2016 was, though, ‘ Norma year’ in London, with ENO staging their first ever
production of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece in February and the ROH
presenting the first production at Covent Garden for almost 30 years in

Now, Chelsea Opera Group, who tackled Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi in 2014, have mounted a concert
performance of Norma. And, if I had any doubts about the wisdom of
this repertoire choice, not just because of the challenging writing for the
soloists but also because the choruses, though energetic, are not great in
number, then these were immediately and absolutely swept away by the
stunning performances of the principals – two of whom, like conductor Dane
Lam, have Australian origins or links – at Cadogan Hall.

Sopranos who are equipped to follow in the path of Guiditta Pasta, Lilli
Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, Callas and Joan Sutherland, to name but a few
illustrious exponents of the role, may be rare, but Helena Dix is
undoubtedly one of those with the vocal and expressive qualities to climb
to the summit of this operatic Everest. The star of Wexford Festival
Opera’s award-winning 2013 production of

Jacopo Foroni’s Cristina, Regina di Svezia

, her lyric soprano is silky and soars effortlessly. As Cristina, Dix’s
poise and dignity were much in evidence in the ceremonial scenes and she
brought such gravitas and authority to her role here, establishing the
emotional profundity and maturity of the Druid priestess. She was a noble
presence, by turns vulnerable and authoritative, her utterances sincere but
also at times portentous. We saw a relaxed and caring Norma, in her duet
when Adalgisa at the start of Act 2, when the women come together in
feminine unity. Her maternal love and distress touched our hearts as she
pleaded with her father, Oroveso, to spare her children from suffering and
shame after her death.

Dix alternates her chest and head voice with ease and has a lovely
clean-edged tone. She softened it beautifully for ‘Casta diva’,
demonstrating stunning power, control and expansiveness of breath, to offer
the requisite nuance. In the florid cabaletta, though, the Australian
soprano released her voice in rapturous flights, gleaming lightly.
Elsewhere, Norma’s anger drew forth a full, weighty sound which quelled
both Adalgisa and Pollione in the trio at the close of Act 1, while
tenderness was served by her beautiful pianissimo. She had the
stamina to build towards the fortitude and sense of duty which dominate the
close, and if Dix seemed to tire a little at start of Act 2 – some of the
phrasing was ‘choppier’ – then she may have simply been saving herself for
the final scena.

After Norma’s opening scene, I feared that we would not have an Adalgisa
who could match Dix’s vocal authority. I need not have worried: Elin
Pritchard’s rich soprano conveyed all the emotional urgency and vacillation
of the youthful Adalgisa, who is not burdened with such vast
responsibilities but who is driven by overpowering passions. The persuasive
characterisation of Pritchard’s Adalgisa was enhanced by the fact that she
had learnt the part well enough to sing almost entirely off-score
throughout. I’ve seen two of Pritchard’s recent performances, and her
Adalgisa confirmed her impressive dramatic and vocal range. It’s hard to
imagine a role more different to the motorbike-obsessed Marie in Opera
della Luna’s production of

Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment

at Wilton’s Music Hall this summer; and, if she had had no trouble
ascending to Marie’s high Es, then the luxurious richness of her middle
register which had been so strongly in evidence during her performance as
Miss Jessel in

Regent Park’s The Turn of Screw

once again made its mark. One sensed every atom of Adalgisa’s passion,
anguish and guilt during this terrific performance.

I first enjoyed Christopher Turner’s firm lyric tenor in two of Bampton
Classical Opera’s recent productions:

Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio

in 2015 and

Gluck’s PhilÈmon e Baucis

the following year. Currently performing in

ENO’s Salome

, here Turner was an unusually sympathetic Pollione, overcome by genuine
strength of feeling, suffering rather than imposing cruelty on other. From
the first, this Roman knew that he had been consumed by a higher force that
could not be resisted, whatever tragedy would consequently and inevitably
befall him and those he loved. In his opening cavatina, ‘Meco all’altar di
Venere’, Turner’s recounting of Pollione’s terrifying dream was
paradoxically both remorseful and determined. The tenor avoided
over-exaggeration or mannerism but made good use of a convincingly
Italianate ring and a ‘sob’ which was occasionally an effective, piercing
frisson through the lyricism.

Australian-American bass Joshua Bloom was a thunderous Oroveso, sounding
sonorously and magisterially from amid the Chorus: no Druid would surely
dare to ignore Oroveso’s instruction to look out for the rising moon (‘Ite
sul colle, O Druidi’), but Bloom effectively lifted his song from the
choral sound, and allowed it to be re-subsumed. Despite the literal
distance between father and daughter, the emotional threads that tie Norma
and Oroveso were powerfully communicated at the close of Act 2. The minor
roles of Pollione’s friend Flavio and Norma’s confidante Clotilde, were
sung very competently by Adam Music and Claire Pendleton respectively.

And, so, what of the Chelsea Opera Group Chorus? Though the tenors were
fairly few in number, the combined male forces made a vigorous and
wholesome sound, and the full Chorus essayed a stirring War Hymn,
invigorated by the relaxed and encouraging gestures of their conductor,
Dane Lam. I was impressed by the fluid drama that Lam crafted;
accelerations and changes of tempo were clearly and deftly indicated by the
left-hander, and if the Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group didn’t always
follow his precise commands instantly, then Lam was untroubled and simply
worked effectively to wind them up to the mark he had set. He conjured a
true sense of grandeur and tragic intensity at the musical and dramatic
climaxes, as well as tenderness in the intimate moments. His efforts were
rewarded with solid orchestral playing: there was some expressive cello
lyricism and in general the strings were much less ragged than they have
sometimes been during past COG performances that I’ve attended. There was a
real sense, too, that the instrumentalists were listening to the singers,
and some particularly note-worthy flute playing from Ben Pateman. Tuning
was generally good, though less secure in the quieter, slower passages
where horns and brass were sometimes imprecise; and, I’d have liked more
confident and forthright playing from across the whole woodwind section, to
give their contributions more telling presence.

Perhaps inevitably, during this concert performance, in which the soloists
were so striking and compelling, it was the passages of emotional intimacy
that held sway over the vast national and religious conflicts. But, this
was a good account of this quintessential bel canto gem, one which whetted
my appetite for COG’s next two ventures into the rarer parts of the
repertoire in the spring and summer of 2019 –

Mefistofele by Boito

in March and

Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon

– which will both be performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Claire Seymour

Bellini: Norma

Norma – Helena Dix, Adalgisa – Elin Pritchard, Pollione – Christopher
Turner, Oroveso – Joshua Bloom, Flavio – Adam Music, Clotilde – Claire
Pendleton; Conductor – Dane Lam, Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra.

Cadogan Hall, London: Saturday 27th October 2018.

product_title=Norma, Chelsea Opera Group at Cadogan Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Helena Dix (Norma)

Photo credit: Grzegorz Monkiewicz