Wednesday, February 18, 2015

'Norma' in the Liceu

It would be churlish to give any other title to this piece than the above, because nothing else in my day could possibly hold a candle to the extraordinary experience that the opera provided yesterday.

The quality of the piece was established during the overture when the Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu under the baton of Renato Palumbo gave a nuanced and articulate account of the music.  It received a well-deserved ovation at its conclusion and promised well for the opera.  Neither the orchestra nor the chorus directed by Peter Burian disappointed and they provided a polished and professional framework for the singers.
            The opening visual of Norma holding a flaming torch (just how do they get away with having naked flames in theatres?) was dramatic and, as the lighting rose we were given a sight of the set, constructed in wood with giant animal heads on each side of massive iron clad doors.  There was a suggestion of roughness and the primitive and, from the profusion of shields and weapons against the walls and on plinths, of violence.
         The ceremonial entry of what looked like a giant white painted, glitter frosted Christmas tree was a little odd but, at it was hoisted aloft it became clear where the sacred mistletoe was going to be harvested.
            I have to say at the outset that I was impressed by the staging, it worked well was versatile and was visually interesting – but it was, I think, a missed opportunity as it seemed to me to add little to the basic narrative.  It functioned and gave a fairly straight performing space but it didn’t complicate a fairly simple reading of the drama itself.
            This is Norma’s opera, the music gives the singer the opportunity to take the audience and claim them for her own.  This is exactly what Sondra Radvanovsky did.  In her frankly astonishing rendition of ‘Casta Diva’ she had the audience shuddering with disbelief at her ability to sing the high pianissimo notes with a fragility and delicacy which seemed impossible from a singer of such power.  At times her voice filled the theatre and could have filled a theatre a number of times larger, but that merely emphasised her extraordinary control. 
            Radvanovsky seemed genuinely moved by the intensity of the ovation at the end of the opera but, given what she had given and the quality of what she was able to give it seemed only right and proper.
            Her philandering lover, Pollione, was sung by Gregory Kunde who produced a seamlessly smooth vocal range and constantly pleased by his precision.  His performance was superb.  He can’t act and looks like a walking eggcup, but all of that can be overlooked because of his brilliant voice.  To be fair, although the part does have some excellent music, the character he plays is woefully unsympathetic and the sudden realization on his part that he really loves Norma is surely impossible to play with any degree of convincingness.
            There were no unacceptable voices in this production and the duets between Norma and Adalgisa (an unfortunate name which suggests a type of aspirin to me) were scintillating.  Adalgisa, sung by Ekaterina Gubanova was excellent and an fitting musical foil to the extravagance of Norma.
            This was, it must be made clear, a brilliant evening.  It was a privilege to be allowed to hear such amazing music making, even if I have to admit that one hour forty-five minutes until the first break was a bit of a stretch!
           My problems with this piece are with the realisation.  This was a clear production by Kevin Newbury, and was interesting to watch, I liked the wood and the white mystical trees and their being cut - but I wanted more.  I don’t really think that this is the sort of opera that has to be anchored firmly to the Gauls and the Romans.  It may be the opportunity to bring on a massive wicker bull at the end for the immolation, but it still kept to the basic story line.
           It is a story of oppression and betrayal, of faith and faithlessness, of the brutal contradictions between public and private and so on.  There are moments of true humour, the audience chuckled as the confession of Adalgisa to Norma about her lover brought her nearer and nearer to her innocent revelation that her Roman lover was the father of Norma’s children.  There were moments of black humour throughout and perhaps those should be embraced and be presented as a tragic-comedy. 
            Perhaps less respectful versions of Norma have been done.  In my mind I wondered about using a whole range of settings ranging from modern colonialism, for example in the United States or nineteenth century in Africa; the Mafia and the Roman Church; modern Africa; the Middle East; India and Pakistan; the Far East – I don’t know, but I felt that such a powerful piece of music could have weathered a more radical interpretation.
          But, as Radvanovsky took her bow and the gods rained down printed leaflets in adulation, it was perhaps enough to have been there and heard the musical magic that this amazingly talented company were able to provide.

Life goes on, however and I have been dealing with the responses from changing a password and having my iPhone suddenly send out failed messages from months ago to mystified recipients.  They should be, as I certainly am because I am not sure how it happened.  But, there are more things in Apple than worms – as no one has said.
            On the subject of IT, Toni has started the next courses in his studies and, as he can regard the starting and writing of a blog as a valid piece of study related work, we went out to yet another restaurant for a field trip so that he can add another page.
            Our visit, which can be seen at
And I look forward to many more such excursions.  The meal was truly excellent and the Xató (a Sitges speciality) was the best that I have ever eaten and all at a price that makes you weep when you think of how much you have (if you are me) spent in the UK on crap food!

Of course talking of something which is nowhere near crap, my poems (he said defensively) I am now talking daily about the publication of Flesh Can Be Bright to ensure, by a sort of sympathetic magic, that it actually does happen.  100 signed and numbered copies of this book will exist come hell and high water and, by god, they will be sold even if I have to resort to extreme measures to sell them.  Which I probably will.
            Marketing is going to be an interesting experience and one to which I will turn my mind when the present OU course is over in May and I can turn my mind full time to the niggling production matters that make the writing of the damn thing look easy!
            My new poems, or drafts of them, are available for view, or indeed for comment – though poetry seems to have an exclusion zone around it as far as comments are concerned.  The only ones that I have received have been through the relative anonymity of an email, as there I know what has been said and by whom, but the comment is not available for anyone else!  Ah well, I appreciate comment however it is delivered!  If you care to glance at them they are available here:
(Perhaps in my next attempt to add this site, I will actually be able to make it live!)

          The deadline for the essay for the Open University course is getting nearer, but is still not near enough for the requisite quantities of adrenalin to produce the sort of writing required.  Another day or so should see the right level of panic to get me creative!
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