Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Norma @ Royal Opera House, London

12 September - 8 October 2016

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

As their production of Enescu’s Oedipe proved last season, the Catalan creative collective La Fura dels Baus can be relied upon to shake things up a little with any opera they stage. Certainly this new production of Bellini’s Norma, directed by La Fura’s Àlex Ollé, does not disappoint in that regard. In updating the action from the time of the Gauls c. 50BC to a contemporary time, Ollé focused on the themes of occupation, fear, fanaticism, intolerance, the pervasiveness of religion and the place of ritual in everyday life. Initial misgivings that this might be too much of a stretch for Bellini’s bel canto score, however, were quickly allayed.

The constant presence of a thousand crucifixes framing the stage combined with Marco Filibeck’s lighting design gave the production much in the way of atmosphere, so the crosses could be variously interpreted to depict a church setting (Act I), a wooded and thorny grove (Act II, scene 2), or in Act II, simply the representation of the suffocating, intangible presence that blind devotion can bring about when taken to its extreme in daily life, whether in terms of war, religion or a loved one. But, of course, it would not be a production by La Fura dels Baus without visuals that deliberately jar against the music to forcibly make their conception of the opera’s contemporary message clear. Thus, Alfons Flores’ set design for Act II, scene 1 found Norma planning infanticide over plastic sheeting laid down to minimise the blood splatter in her front room. This backdrop to domesticity was completed with bright blue Ikea sofas and minimalistic white sideboards, as the children played with a trainset, bounced around on a spacehopper and had Watership Down playing silently on DVD.  This had a lady behind me muttering “Scheiße” under her breath, but for me Bellini proved more than able to withstand this wilful weakness of indulgence in the production’s conception.

The first production of Norma at Covent Garden for almost 30 years was not overly reverential to the bel canto tradition in musical terms either. Antonio Pappano’s conducting, without a baton throughout as has become his favoured approach, produced variable results when translated into sound. There’s gutsy orchestration to be delighted in within Bellini’s wonderful score and this benefitted from Pappano’s broad-armed approach that tended to emphasise the downbeat. Similarly, the passionate choral outpourings (“Guerra! Guerra!” in Act II, scene 3) proved gripping, and in this respect the excellent preparation of the Royal Opera House’s Chorus by their Director William Spaulding also deserves credit. There were more tender moments too – the introduction to the cavatina “Casta Diva” (Act I, scene 1) and “Mira, o Norma” (Act II, scene 1), for example – but too often these failed to register through the lack of repeats or a slightly-too-hasty tempo that Pappano encouraged.

Then there’s the not insignificant matter of the bel canto singing tradition to be considered with regard to the solo roles. Brindley Sherratt’s Oroveso, cast more in a military guise than as a religious leader, started weakly with threadbare tone in the upper register particularly, yet he proved of steadier voice in the latter stages of Act II, if still a rather one dimensional character. Joseph Calleja’s role debut as Pollione also found him in uneven voice: his Act I duets with Flavio and Adalgisa were strongly sung in a manner that often recalled Franco Corelli. The rapid beat that often enlivens Calleja’s tone gave his singing richness, yet in character terms Calleja seemed to suggest an indifferent ‘all right, if I must’ to joining Norma atop the funeral pyre at the opera’s conclusion rather than strenuously fighting his corner against Norma’s determined desires.

Jette Parker Young Artists Vlada Borovko and David Junghoon Kim assumed the smaller, but not insignificant roles, of Clotilde and Flavio respectively. As Norma’s confidante Clotilde Vlada Borovko proved her worth as a rising soprano with a solid technique to listen out for, rounding out her character with skilled yet subtle acting ability. By contrast, David Junghoon Kim’s Flavio was generally secure, but some of his exposed high notes were a little hastily supported.

Sonia Ganassi brought experience of previously singing Adalgisa at the Macerata Opera Festival and in Berlin to her assumption of the role, and this showed in the depth of her interpretation. Self-knowledge of her artistic abilities also shone through, with the scaling down of the voice producing some of the most touching moments of intimacy to be had in the evening. In this respect Act II, Scene 2’s duet with Norma (“Oh, remembranza!”) proved particularly memorable.

Inevitably though, it is to the singer that takes on the title role that the twin burdens of expectation and responsibility fall to ensure that the opera proves memorable. For whatever reason Anna Netrebko decided relatively recently that Norma was not a good vocal fit for her voice, and Sonya Yoncheva assumed the challenges that the lengthy and demanding role presents. In so doing,  Yoncheva succeeded in presenting Norma as a rounded character – or, as Àlex Ollé rightly states in his programme note, “she is motivated by both her courage and her vulnerability”. Thus, Yoncheva’s Norma is one that does not fetishize the role’s many highlights for their own sake, but integrates them into the whole. ‘Casta Diva’ ’s ritualistic authority was timeless.s without having Callas’ imperiousness, Sutherland’s remote standoffishness or Bartoli’s self-conscious carefulness about it. Instead, there was a warmth of tone and a subtle way with the text that was unexpected for a role debut. She was woman who wore the trousers, too, with her forthright and gloriously assured urgings of peace and, later, vengeful bloodletting – vocally Yoncheva is in superb voice and has the stamina for the role too. But it was Norma the woman that made Yoncheva entirely worth hearing: the heart and soul of the character was caught memorably in the delicately yet precisely placed asides in duets and trios that pepper the role and capture the inner anguish of a woman betrayed by one she has loved. That is all one needs to articulate how relevant and contemporary opera remains as an art form.

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Norma @ Royal Opera House, London