Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

ROH, Bellini’s Norma
13 Sep 2016

ROH, Norma

The approach of the 2016-17 opera season has brought rising anticipation and expectation for the ROH’s new production - the first at Covent Garden for almost 30 years - of Bellini’s bel canto master-piece, Norma.

ROH, Bellini’s Norma

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Àlex Ollé's Norma, The Royal Opera

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

First, Anna Netrebko whetted appetites by announcing that she would sing the notoriously demanding title role, but then dampened spirits by withdrawing, citing changes in her voice since she signed up to the role four years ago. Hopes were raised again when Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva was released from her scheduled commitment to sing Mimì at the Metropolitan Opera, and stepped into the priestess’s robes.

The return of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus, headed by the directorial duo of Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco alongside designer Alfons Flores, who gave us such a striking and universally acclaimed Oedipe at the ROH earlier this year (Oedipe), added further expectancy. And, recently, Ollé himself raised the temperature yet higher, hinting in a Guardian interview that in this production the creative team aimed to emphasise the extremism of the opera, its religious and political fanaticism, ‘to bring it all up-to-date’ by depicting a society under the grip of hard-line zealotry, presenting what he describes in an ROH programme article as ‘images that reflect today’s religion, today’s militarism and today’s political elite. In the event, though the funeral pyre burns brightly, the production itself doesn’t blaze with its promised energy.

It’s the religious context which looms largest. Literally, that is, in the form of the hundreds of crucifixes that are festooned on the stage walls, like a heavy metal album sleeve-cover, forming a forest of suffering from which later descends a crown of crucifix-thorns. The eponymous Druid priestess has become the leader of a tribe of hard-line Catholic paramilitaries and Ollé, Carrasco and Flores take inspiration from the Spanish Inquisition and groups such as Opus Dei in their depiction of a brutal, callous world of shadowy rites and violent indoctrination. The sight of school-uniformed children in ritual dress - red, white and black, sky-high triangular hats which seem to blend the Ku Klux Klan with Harry Potter - is chilling.

But, the Romans - wearing gangster suits and shades - don’t get much of a look-in. The Druids don’t need external oppressors; they are making a pretty good job of oppressing themselves. And, so the political dimension of the opera is weakened. Norma’s struggle between her private love for the proconsul Pollione, with whom she has secretly had two children, and her public duty to her fellow Gauls, who urge her to lead a rebellion against the Roman interlopers, is replaced by an internal tussle between her own two fanatical traits - her human passion and her fundamentalist faith.

Sonya Yoncheva in Àlex Ollé's Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper.png Sonya Yoncheva in Àlex Ollé's Norma, The Royal Opera. Photo Credit: Bill Cooper.

We are also offered a domestic world far from these extremes when we enter Norma’s apartment in Act 2 and find her children curled up on the sofa watching television - its flickering images an irritation during Adalgisa’s confession that she has rashly fallen in love, ‘Sola, furtive, al tempio’. When they get bored, the children whizz about on a tricycle or bounce around on an orange space-hopper, again somewhat distractingly during the big female-bonding duet, as Norma forgives the wayward younger priestess.

Yoncheva gives a brave and impressive performance in the title role, but her voice - though technically assured and well-shaped of line - isn’t quite mature enough yet for the role, musically or dramatically. Yoncheva was an imperious priestess but her depiction of Norma’s unbridled, desperate love for Pollione, and the extremes to which this pushes her, was less convincing. The tone was a little hard-edged at the start, though it softened beautifully for ‘Casta diva’; but the requisite nuance was missing and on a couple of occasions the breath-control felt effortful. It didn’t help that this show-stopper wasn’t allowed to ‘stop the show’, for the directors chose a moment which surely demands absolute focus on the singer to waft a large incense burner over the front row of the stalls.

As Adalgisa, Sonia Ganassi had greater variety of range and richer layers in her mezzo, though this wasn’t a technically flawless performance and her voice is perhaps past its prime. In fact, the two voices seemed the ‘wrong way round’, with Ganassi suggesting the depth of experience that properly belongs to Norma. Joseph Calleja did his best to make Pollione more than a bad-guy-bully, and his lovely tenor did much to encourage us to add a few drops of sympathy to our prevailing aversion. It was a full-on vocal performance though, and a little more variety of dynamics and colour wouldn’t have gone amiss. Brindley Sherratt wasn’t helped by the directorial decision that he should commence his opening aria at the back of the stage - perhaps all directors should take lessons in acoustics before they inflict themselves on long-suffering singers - but he put in a solid, if sometimes ragged, turn as Norma’s father Oroveso. The minor roles of Pollione’s friend Flavio and Norma’s confidante Clotilde, were sung competently by two Jette Parker Young Artists: David Junghoon Kim and Vlada Borovko respectively.

Antonio Pappano started the overture with a heady rush of bel canto ardour, but after twenty minutes or so he lowered the orchestral pulse rate which may have been just as well because the ROH Orchestra - who played stunningly - still overpowered the cast at times. The Chorus were in characteristic fine voice, but their movement was frustrated by the stage furniture - desks, pews, altars, crucifixes and the like - and could do little more than stand stock still and sing luxuriously.

So, La Fura dels Baus have now given the Covent Garden audience an Oedipe whose visual scheme was inspired by a catastrophic chemical spill in 2010 which saw one million cubic metres of corrosive waste dumped on western Hungary - ‘that mud […] in our minds was also linked with the myth of man’s creation from primeval clay [and] symbolizes the plague that devastates Thebes, and is also the means by which the contagion spreads’ - and a Norma triggered partially by George Bush’s notorious announcement after the 9/11 attacks that the US would launch a ‘crusade’ against Islamist terrorists. Perhaps it’s time for a production which looks inwards, into the opera’s own score and drama, rather than outwards at the modern world. A work such as Norma which contains so many universal conflicts, dilemmas and passions has more than enough human drama with which the modern audience-member can engage.

That said, the directors do save one unexpected twist for the closing bars and there’s some fine singing and playing on offer, if you can extricate yourself from the stranglehold of crucifixes.

Claire Seymour

Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

Norma - Sonya Yoncheva, Pollione - Joseph Calleja, Adalgisa - Sonia Ganassi, Oroveso - Brindley Sherratt, Flavio - David Junghoon Kim, Clotilde - Vlada Borovko; Director - Àlex Ollé, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Associate director - Valentina Carrasco, Set designer - Alfons Flores, Costume designer - Lluc Castells, Lighting designer - Marco Filibeck, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 12th September 2016.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):