Norma, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, September 2016Posted on 13 September 2016
So many crucifixes — a veritable forest of them in the land of the druids, portrayed here as a Christian community with priests and lay people in standard Catholic attire. Such is the modern take on Norma by Spanish-Catalan director Àlex Ollé, complete with modern décor and flat-screen TV for the living quarters of Norma and Pollione’s two children.
Quite where it is set is unclear. Bayreuth’s new Parsifal portrayed a Christian community in the Middle East, but there is nothing overtly Middle Eastern about this Norma, and it should probably be seen in the abstract, which is no bad thing. Despite the mixed reception for the production team at the end, the striking set designs by Alfons Flors and costumes by Lluc Castells were coherent and theatrical, particularly the giant censer that swings into motion as Norma sings Casta Diva, and the huge gong she hits to summon the ‘druids’ in Act II. Both fine theatrical moments, though the clever cartoon about bunny rabbits under threat that Norma’s children watch at the start of that act is a distraction, and I was nonplussed by the sudden change of ending, which might explain the boos.
Musically however this was very strong. Antonio Pappano in the orchestra pit gave ample space for the singers and excellent chorus to extract the full drama from Bellini’s wonderful opera, which despite its huge appeal is not more regularly performed because the role of Norma is so demanding. After Anna Netrebko felt unequal to the task, Sonya Yoncheva took over and sang superbly, gaining strength as the evening progressed. Her dormono entrambi at the start of Act II as the children sleep was magnificent, and sparks flew in her later duet with the bruised and bloodied Pollione of Joseph Calleja.
This master of dramatic vocal power, with his wonderful timbre and stage presence is a perfect match for the role, and his warm voice shone in the early duets with the vocally disappointing Adalgisa of Sonia Ganassi. Fine singing by David Junghoon Kim as his friend Flavio, and although Norma’s father Oroveso, leader of the ‘druids’, was performed by the admirable Brindley Sherratt his voice sounded somewhat thin and uneven on this first night.
Yet despite disappointments from some cast members, Sonya Yoncheva was a vocal star, with Joseph Calleja delivering warmth and fine dramatic power, and Antonio Pappano unifying orchestra and singers in a glorious account of Bellini’s marvellous opera.
Performances continue on various dates until October 8 — for details click here.