Review of the Norma DVD


Norma, in another way

(by - zéta -, 14.05.2007)

Edita Gruberova, Sonia Ganassi, Zoran Todorovich, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Cynthia Jansen, Markus Herzog
Der Chor Der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Das Bayerische Staatsorchester
Friedrich Haider
Staged by Jürgen Rose
Directed by Brian Large
Universal / Deutsche Grammophon
44007 34219

What can a singer, in the second half of her career's fourth decade, do with such a murderous part as the title role of Norma? This was the question with which I took into my hand the DVD of the Bellini opera recorded in the beginning of 2006, with Edita Gruberova in the title role. The question was not whether the voice of the artist, nearing 60, is intact, as I had been totally convinced of that on the occasion of her performance in Budapest (Donizetti: Roberto Devereux) not long before.

However, while at that time Gruberova already had a decades-long possession of Elisabetta's part (i.e. the role was already "sitting in her throat" very well),  this was the first occasion she showed her Norma to the audience. I am using the phrase "showed to the audience" because after watching the DVD I strongly suspect that Gruberova must have been preparing for this performance for quite a number of years. Judging from the results, this must have been the case.

As her career progressed, the soprano, who had started out as a virtuoso coloratura, gradually mastered the roles requiring more than mere technical proficiency. In her interpretations - while maintaining musical perfection all the time - expression has been playing an increasingly important role. The newest phase in this process is the Norma. The venue is the Munich State Opera, Gruberova's current home theatre.

Those who keep an eye on the productions in Munich are hardly surprised by the staging. Stage director Jürgen Rose (who is also the designer of the sets and costumes) has brought the ancient plot nearer to our age in an interesting way. Among the stylised sets, props and costumes the oppressed Gauls represent tradition, while the oppressor Romans (the proconsul Pollione and Flavio) are from the modern world. This means that while the oppressed point their spears at their oppressors, the latter walk around with Kalashnikovs.

The audience somewhat has the impression of seeing a kind of new colonisation, when the minority whites, having modern equipment, conquer and morally humiliate the natives. The plot is interwoven by the director with such ideas. E.g. Flavio rolls a cigarette during Pollione's aria, he even lights up, and it is the cigarette lighter left on the spot which makes Norma aware that her lover had been there. The lighter's role does not end with this, it also appears in the Norma-Adalgisa duet of Act I. Why I myself somewhat hesitate to accept such interpretations of bel canto works, I allow that such a consistent staging makes sense.

Gruberova either agreed with this approach, or she is an exceptionally disciplined artist, as she thoroughly carries out Rose's concept. Her vocal and theatrical interpretation raises the piece to the highest level.

In the last half century the impersonators of Norma could hardly bypass the grandiose interpretations of Maria Callas in the 50's. This was obvious even in the case of such greats as Joan Sutherland or Montserrat Caballé. According to this interpretation, Norma is a sort of immaculate heroine, and it is primarily her feminine pride which is wounded by Pollione's infidelity. In 'Casta Diva' this Norma sings in a triumphantly ringing voice, guiding her people and prophesying their rise.

However, Gruberova and Rose radically break away from this concept. Here Norma is strained and wants to hide. She is afraid that her hocus-pocuses will no longer keep her people (her father among them) from an uprising, and it would cause the downfall of not only her secret lover (the father of her children) but of herself as well. Pollione messes up this strained love in his crude way, unscrupulously setting his eye on a younger priestess. This Norma falls not at the end of Act II when she "confesses up", she is already a fallen woman at the beginning of the opera. Her downfall is not her sinful love affair coming to light, it is her betrayal of her fatherland. And this makes a big difference.

Edita Gruberova of course fully serves the bel canto lovers' need for beauty as well. The voice is even in every register, but all this has a secondary role, it is the expression, the drama which is the most important.
If anything survives from the opera performances of the past 10 years, this interpretation surely will.

Her partners likewise serve the production. In the role of Adalgisa, Sonia Ganassi is credible as the naive girl who breaks down seeing Pollione's betrayal. Ganassi's every phrase is founded on the ideals of bel canto and radiates refined, felicitous lyricism. Their duets ("Oh! rimembranza!" and "Mira, o Norma") are the scenes having the most intimate mood in the opera.

The Pollione of Zoran Todorovich is somewhat disappointing after the singer's performances in Budapest. However, he can always count on one thing: since Corelli he has surely been the tenor with the most effective looks. Todorovich embodies the singer type of Mario del Monaco and Mario Filippeschi, his sound is also that of brute force, but unfortunately the heat of passion which characterised those two, is missing from him. Nevertheless, it is to his credit that in this way he is perhaps more credible as the - not very sympathetic - "crude colonizer".

Roberto Scandiuzzi portrays the high priest Oroveso as a rebel and revolutionary, quite stirring up the usually somewhat static part. The excellent basso fosters the acceptance of the uncommon staging not only by singing the cavatina in a beautiful voice at the beginning, but also with the unusual portrayal of the complex character.

But all this would not be enough for an exquisite performance if we did not get the perfection provided by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper (chorus master: Andrés Máspero) under the baton of Friedrich Haider. From the success, a larger than usual share is due to them.

© Café Momus, 2007.    English translation by Katalin Szabó

The original article in Hungarian

(Page last updated: 4-Sep-2007) 
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