The audience was right to go wild over this production, originally created for the Salzburg Festival, of Bellini’s Norma. But the target of that adoration was surely the central phenomenon, Cecilia Bartoli’s dominating portrayal as the vengeful heroine.
Star rating: ****
Venue: Edinburgh Festival Theatre
For it is she, imbuing Norma’s turbulent journey from divine figurehead to spiteful cat to spiritual martyr with every emotive extreme under the sun, and by virtue of a limitless toolbox of theatrical nuance and vocal performance of mesmerising subtly and individuality (a delicate virtuosic intimacy you would never have heard from, say, Callas), who steals the show.
The supporting cast and not altogether anomaly-free production – directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier updating the tussle of 1st century Romans versus Druids to 20th century occupying troops versus French Resistance, set inoffensively in a commandeered school building – seem impelled to bask in reflected glory.
Take John Osborn’s Pollione, negotiating the role’s vocal opulence with seamless purity, but just not enough edge to capture his character’s ruthless duplicity. Or Rebecca Olvera’s girlish Adalgisa, naive and adorable, yet forever in the shadow. Everyone but Bartoli, including the slightly underpowered Swiss Radio and Television Chorus, seem content to take a notional back seat.
Yet there is something compelling about a production invigorated by a performing edition that gets back to the crystalline textures Bellini intended. Period band, I Barocchisti, were slow to settle under last-minute replacement conductor Gianluca Capuano. But when they did, the underlay was emotionally raw and visceral.
Even with its few shortcomings – the opera’s fiery apotheosis has little dramatic build up, almost a case of “hey, let’s fire up an inferno and we can all go home” – Bartoli’s all-consuming presence, and the performance’s fleetness of foot, are a surefire delight.