‘Norma’ – a Goz­i­tan touch

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE - Ce­cilia Xuereb

A month of cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties has re­cently come to an end in Gozo with the pro­duc­tion of Bellini’s opera Norma at the Aurora Theatre in Vic­to­ria. This was the climax of the 12th edi­tion of Gauli­tana, a mu­sic fes­ti­val or­gan­ised by the Gauli­tanus Choir. Though it has never ac­quired the wide pop­u­lar­ity of, say, Verdi’s Rigo­letto or even Donizetti’s Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor this is one of the great op­eras. It re­lates the tragedy of its pro­tag­o­nist, de­vel­op­ing from Norma’s dis­cov­ery of her lover Pol­lione’s un­faith­ful­ness and end­ing with her stun­ning act to re­cover Pol­lione’s love for her by join­ing him in a fiery death on the pyre. The opera cap­ti­vates au­di­ences through the sheer lyri­cism of its arias and even more of its recita­tives. Bellini’s fre­quent or­ches­tral com­ments on the char­ac­ters make some scenes very pow­er­ful in­deed.

This new pro­duc­tion is of­ten suc­cess­ful on the dra­matic level, mainly through the act­ing abil­ity of Amar­illi Nizza’s Norma in scenes like the one in which she is close to killing her two chil­dren to save them from sorry lives after her own death. More­over, in the great fi­nal scene where she swiftly changes her mind about ex­e­cut­ing Pol­lione, now a cap­tive of the in­sur­gents, and presents her hor­ri­fied fa­ther, the high pri­est Oroveso (Gabriele Sag­ona), with her ad­mis­sion of hav­ing bro­ken her vows, thus mer­it­ing death by fire, and get­ting through to her fa­ther’s heart by con­vinc­ing him to look after her two sons. En­rico Castiglione could have han­dled this last scene as a whole more suc­cess­fully, but Nizza’s per­sonal suc­cess in this scene was ab­so­lute.

Vo­cally, Nizza started off un­cer­tainly with a Casta diva that was ac­cept­able but not the rav­ish­ing prayer it can be, and it was in her first scene with Adal­gisa (Anna Maria Chi­uri) that her voice be­gan to warm up, though her mid­dle range tended to be veiled. This scene marked by some beau­ti­ful pi­anis­simo singing was suc­cess­ful for the way in which the two voices com­bined and blended es­pe­cially in Ah si, fa core ab­brac­ciami as the two cel­e­brated their friend­ship. Norma is ready to for­give Adal­gisa’s readi­ness to break her vows in view of what she her­self has done, un­til Pol­lione’s un­ex­pected and un­for­tu­nate en­trance.

The part of Adal­gisa was com­posed by Bellini for a so­prano he ad­mired, so he gave her the priv­i­lege of singing a whole scene by her­self be­fore her duet with Pol­lione. Chi­uri’s strong, vi­brant voice was right for this part of a younger woman who has un­know­ingly led Pol­lione to wish to be­tray the mother of his chil­dren. Her Deh, pro­teggimi o dio was finely ex­pres­sive of the guilt she felt in think­ing of yield­ing to Pol­lione’s over­tures and in the duet Va crudele al dio spi­etato she suc­cumbs to the ap­peals of Pol­lione. Rubens Pel­liz­zari, who was a last-minute re­place­ment, was not the ideal Pol­lione, lack­ing the bru­tal­ity of a war­rior and not be­tray­ing enough cal­lous­ness in be­tray­ing Norma. Fol­low­ing a some­what lack-lus­tre per­for­mance in his first scene, he lit up in his scene with Adal­gisa, bring­ing out vividly his new pas­sion for the young priest­ess and in­fect­ing her with legato singing of high qual­ity. In the last scene, where Norma shows her for­mer lover that she will make the supreme sac­ri­fice in or­der to join him in death if not in life, Pel­liz­zari pro­duced the trum­pet tone he lacked in his first vo­cally most im­por­tant scene with Flavio.

Sag­ona’s Oroveso’s phys­i­cal stature was not com­pletely matched by his per­for­mance, mainly be­cause vo­cally he did not es­tab­lish his lead­er­ship over the Gauls. In the small but sig­nif­i­cant role of Norma’s maid Clotilde, the young Goz­i­tan singer Stephanie Portelli made her mark both as singer and ac­tress.

Key scenes like the open­ing scene and the rous­ing one in which Oroveso ha­rangues the Druids on the in­famy Ro­man rule is con­stantly cast­ing on them, saw the choir of Druids ex­press them­selves richly and they were im­por­tant in pro­duc­ing the feel­ing of hor­ror in the last scene when Norma makes her brave con­fes­sion.

The Malta Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra, un­der the dy­namic con­duc­tor Colin At­tard, in spite of a lack of bal­ance be­tween the sec­tions in the Over­ture, gave good sup­port to the singers and con­trib­uted in no mean man­ner to the over­all suc­cess of the per­for­mance.

En­rico Castiglione was also the de­signer of the mas­sive set de­pict­ing a copy of the Ġgan­tija tem­ple’s fa­cade. Though Ġgan­tija was built long be­fore the Ro­mans in­vaded Gaul, its an­cient mag­nif­i­cence pro­vided an ac­cept­able re­place­ment for the sa­cred grove of the god Ir­min­sul re­quired by the li­bretto. By link­ing in this way the Goz­i­tan pro­duc­tion of the opera to Gozo’s pre­his­tory, Castiglione made a point that this amaz­ing tem­ple, re­garded as the old­est free-stand­ing struc­ture any­where in the known world and so Gozo’s most im­por­tant mon­u­ment, can still play a sym­bol­i­cally ac­tive role in the is­land’s lively cul­tural life. On the other hand it ren­dered mean­ing­less the many ref­er­ences to the grove in the text and was re­spon­si­ble, I think, for the un­spec­tac­u­lar end­ing in which the fu­neral pyre was in­di­cated by strong red light­ing ris­ing from be­hind a solid wall.

The pro­duc­tion was ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of the late Joseph Vella, a greatly re­spected com­poser and opera di­rec­tor. Colin At­tard, con­duc­tor of this and many pre­vi­ous op­eras, was the nephew of Joseph Vella, who was also in many ways his men­tor, and this was a very nat­u­ral and much ap­pre­ci­ated ges­ture.

Key scenes like the open­ing scene and the rous­ing one in which Oroveso ha­rangues the Druids on the in­famy Ro­man rule is con­stantly cast­ing on them, saw the choir of Druids ex­press them­selves richly and they were im­por­tant in pro­duc­ing the feel­ing of hor­ror in the last scene when Norma makes her brave con­fes­sion

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