Monday, December 19, 2011

Sleeping with the Enemy

NORMA (New Production)
Krefeld 3 December 2011

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Barbara Dobrzanska (Norma) Kairschan Scholdybajew (Pollione)

How is it possible to be a Druid priestess in the wide open spaces of ancient Stonehenge and keep such secrets as having two children by an enemy soldier? It’s one of the don’t-ask issues I’ve always had with Bellini’s otherwise supernal opera Norma.

The question recurred to me at the premiere of Krefeld Stages’ new production under the direction of Thomas Wünsch. He’s shifted the scene from the green open plains of southern England to the grey claustrophobic environs of a 20th century ghetto designed by Heiko Mönnich -- presumably an eastern European enclave, given the absence of Third World n’er-do-wells.

Why a ghetto? In an interview found in the program booklet, Wünsch says, he wanted to put in bold relief the isolation of the British aborigines as an occupied people. [The Roman occupation of Britain lasted for nearly 300 years, beginning in 43 AD.] Further, he was inspired by Roberto Rosellini’s Rome -- Open City and by Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, both of which, as Wünsch notes, starred that most operatic of cinema icons Anna Magnani.  In the former, latter day Romans face off against the occupying Nazis. In the latter the denizens of the Eternal City find no liberation from the ensuing peace-time occupation of the Allied Forces, despite the desultory efforts of some, namely the younger generation.  

If Norma the opera is viewed through these filters, Norma the Druid priestess apparently copes with the condition in which she finds herself, by sleeping with the enemy, embodied by Pollione, and bearing him two children, whose fate as ethnic half-breeds could prove seminal for the plot of another opera. Especially in view of the fact that Pollione is having it off with a temple novitiate, Adalgisa. My, those Druid lassies were a randy bunch!  

Anna meets Babs
But it’s the song that matters, isn’t it? And the singing for the most part is surprisingly grand.

Barbara Dobrzanska bears a faint but agreeable resemblance to Magnani, and her sound evokes images of Anna’s deeply felt tragic gestures. I’ve heard Dobrzanska before, and she’s always stepped up to the plate. This time, she steps out. Her coloratura may eschew Sutherland’s bravura and Caballe’s lapidary incision, but she stamps her own vigorous personality on the role with her clarion roulades and seamless legato, combined with heartfelt articulation. A welcome surprise: a vocal discovery in... Krefeld?

Janet Bartolova holds her own as Adalgisa, though her voice is bereft of the darker hues usually assigned to the role. After the holidays, she and Dobrzanska reportedly are switching roles on successive performances. Should be interesting.

Kairschan Scholdybajew, who sang Pollione, had a cold. In fitter shape, he might have had a triumph. His somewhat nasal production takes some getting used-to, but his tenor is well suited to the part. His acting, though, could use more flexibility.

Andrew Nolan was serviceable in the thankless role of Oroveso.

Clothilde was a breakthrough of sorts for Sutherland. Whether the role opens horizons for Lilla Tripodi remains to be heard.

Andreas Fellner led a lively reading and drew disciplined response from the chorus, drilled by Maria Benyumova. The orchestra was in outstanding form.  

(Right) Janet Bartolova
Net-net: Wünsch has come up with an heuristic concept. But it ultimately is unfocused and distracting. Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani certainly were caught up in the dust winds of politics as they prepared to bring Norma (1831) to La Scala for the first time, but their primary concerns were romantic.  The opera, in my view, has held the imagination of the public for 200 years because of a love triangle that audiences of any era can and do relate to.  

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