Time Out says
Melbourne Opera's latest grand production has a leading performance for the ages
With the risk of evoking the forced jocularity of the current Prime Minister, how good is Melbourne Opera? ScoMo uses the phrase rhetorically, but this time it deserves an answer: very bloody good, indeed. A company that has eked out a reputation for highly ambitious undertakings on the barest of budgets, they are now consistently producing work that wouldn’t look out of place on the national stages. Norma is probably less ambitious than the company’s 2018 production of Tristan und Isolde, but it boasts a central performance that will surely go down in Australian opera history.
Bellini is a darling of the bel canto repertoire, which can often mean a lot of vocal showing off and scant regard for dramatic necessities; in the case of Norma, however, the singing augments the emotional beats, and dazzling displays of technical prowess intensify rather than distract from the drama. The fiendish requirements of the title role give the character a power and an agency that the dramatic situation doesn’t necessarily bestow, which is helpful for a singer with limited stage presence. For a charisma-bomb like Helena Dix, it’s gunpowder in her pockets.
To be fair, Bellini knows how to set Norma up for dramatic greatness. We meet her father first, Oroveso (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i) high priest of the Druids, who is rallying his people to fight a rebellion against their oppressors, the Romans. We meet Norma’s secret lover and father to her sons, Pollione (Samuel Sakker), who is not only a Roman, but has fallen in love with another woman, Adalgisa (Jacqueline Dark). Only then does Norma appear, the centre of the Druid world and its high priestess, primed for a fall.
The opera is interested primarily in the tension between the public and private persona, where the needs of the community conflict with personal desire. Bellini’s genius lies in the myriad ways his music underlines this idea and compels his drama towards its tragic conclusion. While it deals ostensibly with paganism and the new world, its dramatic thrust is entirely Greek. Wagner, who conducted a premiere of the work in Riga in 1837, understood this when he said, “the action… reminds one instinctively of a Greek tragedy.” The overture, which oscillates between melodic expression and military precision, sets the rhythms that will drive the action forward, and by the third act – when Norma’s private fate becomes a public ritual, and all the decisions of the past come roaring into the present – the momentum seems unstoppable.
Director Suzanne Chaundy delivers a spare and fervent production, dramatically focused even while conceptually rather fluffy. Costume designer Harriet Oxley decks the druids out in a combination of outfits that variously suggest the Spanish Civil War, The Sound of Music and a Gandalf look-alike competition; this fits rather awkwardly with the ’40s Hollywood glamour of Dale Ferguson’s set and John Collopy’s lighting. Chaundy’s weaknesses as a director of movement are still apparent, but she does have a striking way with tableau: the opening of the second act has Norma standing ominously over the bed of her children, a Medea of the shadows.
The singing is strong across the whole production, from the principles to the chorus – it is always remarkable how good the Melbourne Opera chorus sound, given that it is made up of volunteers. Muliaumaseali’i uses that sonorous bass to arresting effect early on, and Sakker convincingly transitions from caddish to caring, in a role that could easily dissolve into confusion. Dark is excellent as the lover and acolyte, fiercely loyal to her high priestess but torn by her own desires. Her first act duet with Norma, ‘Sola, furtiva al tempio’ is matched only by her second, ‘Si fino all’ore estreme’.
Of course, no Norma succeeds without a memorable Norma, and Dix lays claim to the role as if Callas and Sutherland never existed. Her voice has a richness of tone, a kind of silken generosity to it, that makes every phrase a joy to hear. Her coloratura is remarkably effortless and dramatically relevant – there is none of that coldness that can creep into displays of technical virtuosity – and her lower register is as warm and steady as her upper register is crystal clear. She’s funny too, with a “celestial authority” resting face that could hobble the gods. It is a performance that builds on her superb appearance for this company as Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux, and cements her as one of this country’s major sopranos.
The Melbourne Opera orchestra play Bellini’s score, under the steady conducting of Raymond Lawrence the night we attended, with complete assurance; there’s an expansiveness in the horns and an expressiveness in the strings that drives the emotion forward. The final scene, as the tension mounts unbearably and the singers and musicians find another gear, proves Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s a thrilling synthesis that only opera can manage. The only questions left are not for Melbourne Opera to answer: why isn’t this company getting government funding, and why is Opera Australia yet to cast Dix?