Lunar beauty

Vincenzo Bellini
Grand Theatre, Leeds

Nicola Lefanu
Wilton's Music Hall

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, February 24th

It often strikes people as odd – normal people at least – that the term “bel canto” should mark out a particular and rather limited operatic tradition rather than a quality of the genre as a whole. Surely singing beautifully is a central part of what opera is all about? Yet the term, primarily used to refer to early nineteenth-century Italian opera (Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini), is still marked by a pejorative sense, as if the idea is somehow at odds with what opera is really for. The notion that in showing off the voice composers are somehow betraying the dramatic function of their art form is one of the most persistent, and most persistently mistaken, in operatic history.

What is less often pointed out is that beautiful singing – whether in the manner of smooth, florid lines in sharp relief against the orchestras suggested by the bel canto tradition, or otherwise – has its own particular dramatic gravity. Most of the best operas trade knowingly on this, and composers have long recognized that a vocal set piece can shift the dramatic momentum, control the flow of action or direction of the audience’s sympathies, or even simply break through one plane of a drama in order to inaugurate another. The real influence of the argument, though it has resurfaced continuously during the past 500 years, is in any case usually exaggerated. Wagner, though strongly scornful of the more artificial aspects of the Italian tradition, reserved for Bellini some of the strongest praise he ever permitted himself to express on the subject of another composer. Norma remains Bellini’s best-known opera, though this is largely on the back of the famously undulating cavatina, “Casta Diva”, in which the heroine seeks the blessing of the chaste goddess of the moon. It has been over twenty years since the opera was performed by any of Britain’s major companies (there is a rumour that Anna Netrebko will sing the role in Covent Garden in 2016), but with the recent resurgence of interest in Donizetti, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Bellini shared in the spoils, too.

This is certainly the case at Opera North, whose new staging of the opera follows recent productions of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Bellini’s I Capuletti e I Montecchi. I was slightly perturbed when I first learned the director was to be Christopher Alden, a great talent but one whose fascination with physical theatre and improvisation could prove an awkward partner with Bellini’s stop-start music. True to form, instead of following the score’s direction that “Casta Diva” should be sung under a central oak tree, with the heroine’s arms raised in prayer, Alden has asked her to climb the tree instead, and still raise her arms. Luckily, Alden’s tree – a bare, suspended trunk, on which the Gauls inscribe their runes – allows for a chair to be fixed to it at the relevant point. More generally, though, and despite the nearincessant movement and tangling of bodies on stage, Alden succeeds admirably in generating the right kind of atmosphere and energy for the singers so that Bellini’s wonderfully worked vocal lines can still be heard to hold the drama together.

And some very fine singers there are. The title role is taken by Annemarie Kremer, a Dutch soprano with exactly the right combination of stamina, flexibility and beauty of tone. Her voice is wonderfully rich in the middle register and powerful and even in the high registers, so the famously challenging role appears to present few serious challenges – although, if anything, she is at her best in the duets with her protégée and rival Adalgisa, and with her former lover Pollione. If her vocal characterization lacks one thing, perhaps, it is a sense of the character’s vulnerability. “Norma non mente” (“Norma doesn’t lie”), the priestess booms after indicting herself just before the opera’s conclusion, but she has, in fact, been living a lie for years. Still, this is an exhilarating and auspicious British debut for Kremer.

Similarly impressive on her British debut is the American soprano Keri Alkemi, whose assured and darkly coloured portrayal of Adalgisa captures perfectly the conflict between a newly awakened sexual appetite and loyalty to her vows. The production, which transports the action to a Victorian Britain of peasants and plutocrats, presenting a set of oppressions and inequalities perhaps more relevant to us than those of Gaul and Rome, has the admirable conceit of making the Gaulish community seem even more menacing than their invaders. A nice touch is the continual presence on stage of Oroveso, Norma’s father – powerfully portrayed by James Creswell – who when he’s not trying to convince his daughter to hold his axe, sits glowering in the shadows, overhearing everything. The Opera North chorus are in fine fettle, though they are outshone by their colleagues in the pit, who currently seem to be at their very best. This is, in part, thanks to the exemplary musical direction of Oliver von Dohnanyi, who keeps the orchestral accompaniments light and fleet where necessary and gives the singers the necessary space to shine. The only weak link is the Mexican tenor Luis Chapa, who captures Pollione’s pomposity but little else – certainly, one has little inkling of why two beautiful, powerful women are willing to lose everything just to be with him. His failing, in this supreme example of bel canto opera, is not that he sings too beautifully, but that he doesn’t sing beautifully enough.

Beauty in all its operatic guises is at the heart of Nicola Lefanu’s new opera Dream Hunter, which shares with Norma its heady mixture of florid vocal lines, Mediterranean fervour, incantations to the moon and sexual awakening. Composed to a libretto by John Fuller, and scored for a light chamber ensemble and four soloists, the opera dramatizes one evening in the life of two Corsican sisters, their father, a widowed and indebted smallholder, and the village mayor’s brutish son, betrothed to the older sister Angela but more interested in seducing the younger one, Catarina. Like Norma, Catarina’s magnetic appeal is partly manifest in the beauty of her melismatic vocal part and a style of diction which lifts her above the other characters. Wonderfully created by the soprano Charmian Bedford, the character is also, like Norma, a visionary, although in the poverty-stricken setting her status as a “mazzera” or “dreamhunter” is more curse than blessing. “Are you a mazzera?”, asks Angela, “Is someone going to suffer?”. “God forbid”, replies Catarina.

The metaphor of hunting rips through the drama. The father hunts boar (illegally), the mayor’s son Sampiero hunts women; Angela wants to ensnare a husband and even Catarina, a born dreamer who refuses to help her sister prepare the evening meal, eventually hunts down Sampiero in her sleep. Lefanu’s beautifully coloured score – wonderfully played by the new music ensemble Lontano, under Odaline de la Martinez – eschews any such dynamism, and is more concerned with spinning a glittering web around the action. It sets the action rather than drives it, which suits Fuller’s verse libretto, itself rather more poetic than dramatic. The opera also lasts scarcely fifty minutes, sufficiently short for the requisite stillness of gaze to encompass the whole, and a perfect length for an work almost uncanny in its focus on that outmoded operatic virtue, beautiful singing.

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