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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.

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