The local bel canto revival continues, with the first performance of Norma in Melbourne for many years. Melbourne Opera, which has already contributed greatly to the revival with recent Australian productions of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux and Anna Bolena, has found a soprano who can climb what’s been described as “the Everest of opera.” As Norma, Helena Dix leads a capable cast in a new production that, despite its muddled period setting, succeeds through simplicity of design.

Helena Dix in Melbourne Opera’s Norma. Photo © Robin Halls

First performed at La Scala in 1831, Bellini’s tale of ancient Gaul druids versus invading Romans centres on the priestess Norma, the Roman proconsul Pollione, with whom she has secretly had two children, and her young acolyte, Adalgisa, who has now caught Pollione’s eye. Secretly fearing for her lover, Norma has advised her people, including the chief druid, her father Oroveso, not to wage war on the invaders. However, Pollione’s altered affections and imminent return to Rome prompts wildly oscillating emotions in Norma, from despair to vengeance, which fuel dramatic confrontations, reconciliations and a fiery finale.

A specialist in bel canto, which means ‘beautiful singing’, Melbourne-born Dix certainly delivered that on opening night. She has a powerful, expressive soprano, soaring up to then floating around the top of her considerable range with beautiful tone and considered, controlled dynamics, as well as plunging down to remarkably dark, low notes on occasion. Norma’s showstopper aria, Casta diva, was a coloratura showcase for Dix, who got this implausibly volatile character over the line with contained, dignified movements and fierce eyes.

Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, Samuel Sakker and Helena Dix in Melbourne Opera’s Norma. Photo © Robin Halls

As Pollione, another Australian singer making an impression internationally, Samuel Sakker carried off the conqueror’s arrogance but lacked a little as a beguiling seducer. His voice is beguiling, however: a smooth, resonant tenor with fine diction too. Sakker’s duet with Jacqueline Dark’s Adalgisa was a highlight, as were Dark and Dix’s Act II duet of reconciliation. Although occasionally a little rough around the edges, Dark’s mezzo was generally strong and nuanced, and dramatically her measured approach was able to smudge over the fact that the character of Adalgisa is younger than the performer.

With his big but sensitive bass and great stature, Melbourne Opera favourite Eddie Muliaumaseali’i was rock solid as Oroveso. Rebecca Rashleigh and Michael Lapina were very capable in the minor roles of Clotilde and Flavio, and the Melbourne Opera Chorus were in fine form both vocally and theatrically, always seeming to be exactly where they should on the tiny Athenaeum stage. Under the baton of Raymond Lawrence, the small Melbourne Opera Orchestra sounded a little thin at times (perhaps especially due to where I was seated, well back under the low dress circle), but they were well poised during accompanied recitative and conveyed ample drama when in full force.

Samuel Sakker and Jacqueline Dark. Photo © Robin Halls

Director Suzanne Chaundy’s decision to move the setting from 50BCE to World War II doesn’t work because there isn’t full commitment to the idea, perhaps because the libretto won’t allow it. Pollione in a fascist uniform and the occupied people dressed in the rough-and-ready military garb of resistance fighters is a good idea. However, simultaneously having many of the occupied dressed in druidic costume, singing about pagan gods and rites, pulls the production in two conceptual directions. The incongruous brief for costume designer Harriet Oxley is apparent early on when Oroveso defiantly waves his rifle in mid-20th century attire, then dons a druid’s robe and strides around with a long, gnarled staff.

Dale Ferguson’s set succeeds through timeless simplicity, however: low black steps semi-circling around the drama, backed by some gently glittering panels, with minimalist-meets-Romantic visual points of interest such the occasional wisp of gauzy curtain. It’s all heightened by John Collopy’s moody, colour-saturated lighting; the finale’s fire is convincingly achieved with no more than vivid orange light and a hint of smoke.

While Melbourne Opera’s Norma isn’t the grand affair a well-funded company could achieve, the fact that it’s been mounted at all, in a new, fully staged production, is something to be grateful for. Most importantly, it’s sung well, from chorus to title role, in which Helena Dix reveals the emotional power and sheer beauty of bel canto.

Melbourne Opera’s Norma is at the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, until September 24


Read our new magazine online