Tuesday, 7 July 2009

NORMA, THE HAMPSHIRE BELLINI


I first listened to Norma when I was very young, and fell in love with her, truly believing it to be the best opera ever written by Bellini, it was also Queen Victoria's too. I imagine I listened to Callas singing it, because any other voice for me fails miserably, although this is not true as their are quite a few that have sung it beautifully. Written for 'old school dramatic coloraturas' it tells of the gripping story about a Demi Goddess called Norma who has two children by a Roman General. Then the Roman General falls in love with Norma's handmaiden who unknowingly tells Norma of her passion. Written when Bellini was in his late 20's. It has all the ingredients for pure theatrical drama, love, betrayal, anger, innocence, a true saga, ending with the General and Norma killing themselves, by throwing themselves on to a fire.
Lucky Queen Victoria was able to listen to the great Giulia Grisi who came from a very musical family and was the daughter of one of Napolean Bonaparte's officers, and mezzo soprano, Maria Malibran, obviously there are no recordings for us to enjoy. It is a brave choice for any singer to sing this truly difficult part. It has been said that it is easier to sing three Brunhildes in one night than one Norma, The most famous singer to tackle this was obviously Maria Callas who sang 89 performances of it in her whole career, plus the rehearsals, practice, emotional exhaustion that the whole opera requires. 1948 - 1955 were Callas's best years and it is said that she lost her voice because of it and obviously also for her love of Onassis. Other greats are Monserrat Caballe who I have since got to enjoy and Rosa Ponselle, a legendary opera diva,whose voice sounds beautiful. Tenors too were exceptional, Franco Carelli and Kurt Baum.
With the highest note written being a top C, some go all out for the Eflat. I can proudly still hit a top Bflat.
I was so excited when I heard that Grange Park, in Hampshire, were putting it on and that the singer Clare Rutter was going for it, because it is such an ambitious role, you can truly admire Rutter's bravery. As I have said she was against the best 'old school dramatic coloraturas' with huge voices that compete with the best orchestras in the world. How would Clare do?
I discover that Claire Rutter has had critical success with her performances for Opera North of La Gioconda and has been nominated for the Maria Callas award for a performance of Fiodiligi in Cosi fan Tutti, and compared to Maria Callas frequently, Having travelled around the world singing in so many roles, she should have the experience I think. Plus I felt very guilty I hadn't got full knowledge of her, as I should have done, but then with so many interests it is difficult to know in depth any subject. So I beg Grange Park for a ticket, any ticket.. Claire, I discover had studied at the Guildhall School of Music, the music school, which I wanted to go to, if only I had been good enough.
Grange Park and its theatre are pretty palatial, and after a delicious dinner of tomato soup, baked English ham, and strawberries with clotted cream the action started.

Claire was competent, and although the performance as a whole can't be compared with the major opera houses of the world, it was a lovely evening, listening to my number one opera, with Clare singing beautifully. Of course there were limitations, we were in the middle of English Countryside, and in a opera house that has a small budget in comparison to huge houses. It is just incredible that we are lucky enough to have this live adventure and to hear someone with ability, if not the flare and charisma of the past divas.

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