Festival Opera


Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

AT her debut Edinburgh press conference on the first of the month, superstar soprano Cecilia Bartoli referred to this Salzburg production of Bellini's Norma as "integrale", an Italian word petrolheads will recognise as signifying a particularly stylish brand of technical precision and power. It was that breadth of quality that brought a capacity Festival Theatre audience to its feet at the end of the opening performance of this year's Edinburgh International Festival in a most un-Edinburgh-like display of ecstatic enthusiasm.

Even the vast stage of the re-modelled old Empire Theatre is not enough for Christian Fenouillat's design for this re-thinking of Norma, the Second World War French Resistance setting intended to echo for a modern audience a political allegory of the time of writing that Bellini hid in his tale of pagan faith under Roman occupation. With the set extending beyond the proscenium arch, possibly also to create a different sonic world from the pit, all of this is swiftly established in a sequence of scenes during, and even before, the overture.

Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier thus have everyone immediately on the same page with the concept of the staging – exquisitely lit by Christophe Forey – so that the music can work its magic. And it is startling in every department. With chorus master Gianluca Capuano depping for an indisposed Diego Fasolis on the podium, the period instrumentalists of I Barocchisti were superb, the lovely flute intro of Casta Diva setting the tone before Bartoli has sung a note, and Capuano's Swiss Radio and Television Chorus packing an enormous punch for their size.

That standard of excellence in every detail demanded much of the principals, who delivered across the board. Yes, Bartoli is still astonishing, the dynamic range of her expression truly breathtaking at times, but John Osborn's Don Draper-esque Pollione matches her every step of the way, and Rebeca Olvera's Adalgisa is a gorgeous portrayal of corrupted innocence. That Bartoli's slightly melodramatic gestural acting infects the whole cast only adds to the charm of a production that brings Norma musically into the 21st century by paying careful attention to the start of the 19th.

Runs to August 9