a great second act: 4.5 stars,
This review is from: Norma: Bavarian State Orchestra [DVD]  (DVD)
Where to start? The set, which is angular and distracting in Act 1, ceases to be a distraction in Act 2: the lighting makes the sharp edges invisible, and the focus is on the upfront action most of the time. The removal of setting from ancient Gaul to the modern Balkans (I guess) works well. Are the Gauls re-imagined as Islamic freedom fighters? The women are dressed in ways that suggest both Catholic nuns and Islamic women with the hijab -- so maybe what's being suggested is that Rome here represents the forces of modern secularism while the Gauls suggest a non-specific commitment to a religious path. What Pollione is tempting Adalgisa towards should perhaps be understood as a kind of self-gratifying hedonism that parades under the name of love. In one scene, the updating is particularly effective -- in Act 2, when the Gauls are preparing to fight, their first chorus is accompanied by a distribution of Kalashnikovs. In Act 1, only the Romans had guns! The machine guns and the ski-masks, and the women (nuns?) passing the weaponry --it's a chillingly effective piece of staging.
The production is paced urgently by Jorge Haider and his Bavarian State Opera forces. Mainly, though, the production is a triumph for Edita Gruberova, who, at around 60, gives a courageous and firm performance. The voice isn't always beautiful (though it frequently is) but it's always put to expressive use, and there are times, in the recitatives mainly, where the expressiveness has an almost veristic power. The opening of Act 2, where she contemplates killing her children, is very powerful, and the duet there with Adalgisa (Sonia Ganassi) is marvelous. Gruberova shows us a woman at the end of her rope, not always in control of her feelings, and prompted constantly in Act 2 to destructive acts. Her relinquishment of revenge on Pollione and her plea to her father to make sure her children come to no harm are powerfully sung and enacted. She lacks the powerful middle-to-lower voice that Callas employed so effectively (In "In mia man . . ." for example), but she gets Norma across magnificently.
Zoran Todorovich is a good-looking Pollione, acting well, and singing with less than bel canto refinement, but he gets the job done. Roberto Scandiuzzi is a warm-voiced Oroveso, a bit strained at the top of his range and never sounding as implacable as he could -- though that works to his advantage in the final scene. Sonia Ganassi probably does the best singing, combining throughout beauty of tone, aptness of phrase, and power of expression. So . . . go for it. Bellini knew how to build to a dramatic and musical climax, and these performers do him proud.