The Malta Independent 20 October 2018, Saturday

‘Norma’ – a Gozitan touch

Tuesday, 15 May 2018, 09:35 Last update: about 6 months ago

Cecilia Xuereb

Photo: Daniel Cilia
Photo: Daniel Cilia

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.

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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.


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