Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Verdi Otello, Bergen - Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, Lester Lynch

Verdi Otello livestream from Norway with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Garner with a superb cast, led by Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, and Lester Lynch and a good cast, with four choirs, the Bergen Philharmonic Chorus, the Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegiûm Mûsicûm Kor, the Bergen pikekor and Bergen guttekor (Children’s Choruses) with chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1765, just a few years after the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra : Scandinavian musical culture has very strong roots, and is thriving still. Tucked away in the far north, Bergen may be a hidden treasure, but, as this performance proved, it's world class.

French orientalism : songs and arias, Sabine Devieilhe

Mirages : visions of the exotic East, a selection of French opera arias and songs from Sabine Devieilhe, with Alexandre Tharaud and Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth, new from Erato

Temple Winter Festival: the Gesualdo Six

‘Gaudete, gaudete!’ - Rejoice, rejoice! - was certainly the underlying spirit of this lunchtime concert at Temple Church, part of the 5th Temple Winter Festival. Whether it was vigorous joy or peaceful contemplation, the Gesualdo Six communicate a reassuring and affirmative celebration of Christ’s birth in a concert which fused medieval and modern concerns, illuminating surprising affinities.

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Turandot in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wrapped up its 95th fall opera season just now with a bang up Turandot. It has been a season of hopeful hints that this venerable company may regain some of its former luster.

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

Girls of the Golden West in San Francisco

Not many (maybe any) of the new operas presented by San Francisco Opera over the past 10 years would lure me to the War Memorial Opera House a second time around. But for Girls of the Golden West just now I would be there again tomorrow night and the next, and I am eagerly awaiting all future productions.

DiDonato is superb in Semiramide at Covent Garden

It’s taken a while for Rossini’s Semiramide to reach the Covent Garden stage. The last of the operas which Rossini composed for Italian theatres between 1810-1823, Semiramide has had only one outing at the Royal Opera House since 1887, and that was a concert version in 1986.

Hans Werner Henze Choral Music

Hans Werner Henze works for mixed voice and chamber orchestra with SWR Vokalensemble and Ensemble Modern, conducted by Marcus Creed. Welcome new recordings of important pieces like Lieder von einer Insel (1964), Orpheus Behind the Wire (1984) plus Fünf Madrigale (1947).

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

‘His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven’: ‘a common fountain’ from which flow ‘pure silver drops’. At the risk of effulgent hyperbole, I’d suggest that Antonio’s image of the blessed governance and purifying power of the French court - in the opening scene of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi - is also a perfect metaphor for the voice of French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, as it slips through Handel’s roulades like a silken ribbon.

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Bettina Smith, Norwegian Mezzo, in Songs by Fauré and Debussy

Here are five complete song sets by two of the greatest masters of French song. The performers are highly competent. I should have known, given the rave reviews that their 2015 recording of modern Norwegian songs received.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Uthal

The opera world barely knows how to handle works that have significant amounts of spoken dialogue. Conductors and stage directors will often trim the dialogue to a bare minimum (Magic Flute), have it rendered as sung recitative (Carmen), or have it spoken in the vernacular though the sung numbers may often be performed in the original language (Die Fledermaus).

A New Anna Moffo?: The Debut Disc of Aida Garifullina

Here is the latest CD from a major label promoting a major new soprano. Aida Garifullina is utterly remarkable: a lyric soprano who also can handle coloratura with ease. Her tone has a constant shimmer, with a touch of quick, narrow vibrato even on short notes.

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

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):