Norma review by Henry Shaw

***stars

Melbourne Opera has presented Melbourne with a Bel Canto feast with Bellini’s Norma, starring Helena Dix. Helena gives a vocal masterclass over the course of the evening, confirming her position as one of Australia’s best. If you want to listen to some marvellous singing then Norma is for you. The performances are all strong, but there are several elements to the production that are not as well developed and how it is presented has some serious flaws and implications that make it a difficult piece to fully enjoy, but if you can get past those then there is a lot to experience within.

Front and centre of this production are the singers. Clearly, the bulk of the attention went into crafting the performances and it shows, across the board the soloists are confident, and gorgeous to listen to. Starting off the right way, is the incomparable Eddie Muliaumaseali’I singing the role of Oroveso. Each time he opens his mouth the audience swoons, making it clear how he got so many people to follow him into the woods and start a cult in the first place. The command that he has over the singers onstage and the audience around him is awe-inspiring, enrapturing us from the beginning of the opera and right the way throughout.

Helena Dix is the draw for this production. Not a single person in attendance would attest otherwise, it is Dix’s show and she makes it clear why. It is not just her singing that makes her shine, but her presence onstage. Her wry smiles as she twirls people around her finger, her sardonic glares as she listens to trite platitudes of love, there is not a moment when she is not loving her time on the stage and not a moment that the audience doesn’t love her there. Her ‘Casta Diva’ was a highlight for the night, so hypnotizing that there was a moment of crystalized silence once it finished with no one daring to break it. Not only were there moments of sheer beauty, but also levity and humour as she reacted to the ridiculousness of what was going on around her. This did sometimes undermine the scenes as it dismantles the façade of the plot, but I enjoyed these moments nonetheless. The end of Act 1 had me giggling as Dix sarcastically reacts to everything around her, breaking any tension that the scene tries to build, but making the whole scenario a lot more enjoyable. I’m not sure the comedy was intentional, but certain events had such perfect comic timing that you couldn’t help but laugh, such as two women singing about loving the same man, only to have him awkwardly appear in the middle of them or that same man professing his love seconds before his illegitimate children appear onstage. Self-aware moments such as these make it feel as if we’re watching a comic parody of Norma, which I would be 100% on board with. I’m not sure this is what they were going for, so I don’t think it worked for the show as a whole, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Unfortunately, the production outside of those two singers is very hit and miss. The other leads all perform well, although there are no true moments for them to shine. Jacqueline Dark is consistently strong throughout the production and Samuel Sakker and Micheal Lapina perform admirably as Pollione and Flavio. Rebecca Rashleigh as Clothilde makes use of her short amount of time on stage and sings well alongside Dix. I don’t think it is through any fault of the performers, but the majority of the audience’s attention goes to Norma when she is on stage and the side characters are much maligned by both the score and the staging. The ensemble also sings their sections well, but it is in their characterisation that they miss the mark. Norma’s army of nuns and guns is a hodgepodge of men and women who seem thoroughly unprepared for battle. Each soldier is given a weapon, mainly rifles and SMG’s (kudos to the one soldier who literally brought a sword to a gun fight) but only two of the actors seem at all comfortable holding the weapons. In the front line of four men, two hold them very naturally, one holds an SMG like a power tool and the other holds it like it’s an infant. Clearly this is supposed to be a ragtag army, but some consistency would have made it look more like a capable guerrilla military unit and less like a group of opera singers holding big toys. The inclusion of guns also confuses the time period that it is supposed to be set in and no help is given through the surtitles to clarify any of these choices. Reading the program notes, I thought the guns might be used in the finale of the opera as Pollione, who is presented as a fascist military leader, is burned on a pyre. I assumed that would be adapted to a firing squad (which is appropriate given Mussolini’s same fate in real life), but instead a group of soldiers all holding assault weapons build a fire and then burn him alive off stage. This isn’t a case of me wanting something to be done differently, but a production making a very specific change and then not justifying it in any way. Chekov be damned, I suppose. The Melbourne Opera Orchestra performed very well under the baton of Raymond Lawrence; the orchestra is a consistent highlight in Melbourne Opera productions. I haven’t been disappointed by them yet and don’t think I ever could be. The set design works well at points and I made a note that several times the illusion of a starry night was incredibly effective, although there was no clear character to the set. I didn’t feel that the performers existed in a living world, the large monolithic walls failing to evoke any excitement and when lifted away revealed simply more walls. Costuming was strong across the cast, the military uniforms being consistent and the priestess’s gowns being appropriately light and floofy, giving an ethereal feel to their presence. Lighting was competent, although generally in a quite dark state, which meant that the surtitle screen on the OP side was brighter than anything on stage (some tweaks to the TV settings would make it much more comfortable, turn the brightness down slightly). There were few moments that the lighting particularly stood out or enhanced the elements on stage although the opening and closing of Act 2 both used the lighting to bold images to set the scenes. The technical elements were all very effective and well produced, but not especially stimulating.

A major thematic issue I have with the production is when we are introduced to our romantic lead/philanderer/fascist officer, Pollione. I wish I was joking about the fascist thing, but Pollione has been costumed with red armbands around his military uniform and the program notes even make reference to mid-20th century European fascists so it’s hard to pretend otherwise. There is some reference in the program to Mussolini, but the outward appearance of the character is much more clearly aligned with a German soldier than an Italian one and so the theatrical shorthand implies that Pollione is a Nazi. The opera itself seems to ignore either interpretation though, as he simply functions as a generic “invading military commander” and the fact that he is part of any fascist regime is insignificant to the plot of the opera. Having such a large factor be completely ignored gives the impression that we are supposed to just accept that aspect of the character without any criticism. We are currently living in a time where the normalization of extreme fascist ideas is an actual problem and there is a real resurgence of bigoted and violent ideologies in the mainstream. I don’t think the production team means to create a sympathetic Nazi character, but by including reference to such as extreme position with no deconstruction of the idea means that all it accomplishes is the normalisation of these ideas as part of our culture. Theatre makers should seriously think about what they are trying to say and the implications of what they do, because this is a conversation that we need to be having, but the lazy normalisation does nothing to further the discourse. Simply removing those armbands would an easy change that doesn’t make us have to think about the implications of Norma sacrificing herself to die alongside her Nazi lover. We should be having these conversations in theatre because they are important, but uncritical normalisation of extremists is neither interesting theatre nor socially or culturally beneficial.

I think Melbourne Opera has tried something and should be encouraged for that, but there needs to be a lot more thought put into each aspect of the production before it is rolled out. Norma is difficult to recommend. There are clear positives of the production and as a singer in Melbourne this is an obvious production to attend, but maybe just turn your brain off for the plot and themes of the piece itself. That’s not a great take away and I know that Melbourne Opera can do better, because they clearly care about what they do. I hope that their next production takes more risks with what it says and there is a vision for how we can see these operas and characters reflected in our own lives.

Images: Robin Halls

 

Set 3/5

Costumes 3/5

Sound 3/5

Lighting 3/5

Performances 4.5/5

Stage Management 2.5/5

Direction 1.5/5

 

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