Renato Palumbo conducts Bellini’s Norma

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Bellini
LABELS: C Major DVD
ALBUM TITLE: Bellini
WORKS: Norma
PERFORMER: Gregory Kunde, Raymond Aceto, Sondra Radvanovsky, Ekaterina Gubanova, Ana Puche, Francisco Vas; Gran Teatre del Liceu Choir & Symphony Orchestra/Renato Palumbo; dir. Kevin Newbury (Barcelona, 2015)
CATALOGUE NO: C Major DVD: 737208; Blu-ray: 737304

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Should anyone believe that the age of park-and-bark is over, they should take a look at Kevin Newbury’s production of Norma. It is hard to believe that this is the work of the director who animated Antonio Cagnoni’s dizzy bel canto farce of small town amateur theatrics, Don Bucefalo, relocating it to the American Midwest in the 1980s. Here the setting and period are uncertain: an abstract wood of leafless silver birch extends from a vast armory inhabited by druid priestesses with complex hairpieces and sci-fi ball gowns.

Where Cagnoni’s cast of comic archetypes were vividly individuated, Bellini’s Gauls and Romans blur into a gloomy mass of tulle, pleather and dreadlocks. Newbury’s staging drains Bellini’s lyric tragedy of its volatile emotional energy and essential intimacy. Spectacle, a small but vital element of the drama, and one well served by designer David Korins’s Act II reveal in ‘Guerra! Guerra!’, is handicapped by Jean-Pierre Loisil’s video direction.

As Norma, Sondra Radvanovsky favours Joan Crawford-style histrionics. As conductor Renato Palumbo adjusts the tempo for every embellishment, ‘Casta diva’ starts slowly and grinds almost to a halt. It’s a performance of gritty authority and impressively spun messa di voce but gamey tone and sour intonation. Gregory Kunde’s Pollione is similarly unyielding. All the details are there but the effort in making them is audible. Ekaterina Gubanova’s dark-toned Adalgisa is more agile, holding true to pitch and style, even in duet with Radvanovsky. Raymond Aceto (Oroveso), Ana Puche (Clotilde) and Francisco Vas (Flavio) deliver solid support, as do the chorus and orchestra of Gran Teatre del Liceu, but Bellini’s compact, psychological masterpiece sags and drifts where it should grip.

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Anna Picard