Review: Norma (Royal Opera House)

Sonya Yoncheva triumphs as Bellini’s heroine in a muddled new production

Sonya Yoncheva in the title role of Norma (ROH)
Sonya Yoncheva in the title role of Norma (ROH)
©Bill Cooper

With Norma and Il barbiere di Siviglia opening on consecutive evenings, the Royal Opera‘s autumn season is up and running with a big, Italianate bang. Only time will tell whether it’s wise to ring in the new with 18 performances of warhorses by Bellini and Rossini that vie for the same audience.

Given a bold programme for 2016-17 that’s set to feature challenging works like The Nose, Written on Skin and Thomas Adès‘s new one, The Exterminating Angel, a more even spread of fare at this blunt end of the season might have boosted the box office and, more importantly, better served cash-strapped opera lovers (of whom there are more than you might think).

At least Norma is a new production, and in the hands of Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus it was never going to be a gentle affair. The director who wowed Covent Garden four months ago with Enescu’s Oedipe has eschewed Bellini’s baloney about druids and Romans in favour of a 21st-century Roman Catholic fantasy of sects and violence.

It’s a simple enough story. Two women love the same man; both renounce him for virtuous reasons. They—Norma and Adalgisa—are priestesses; he, Pollione, is an officer of the invading Roman army. It all ends in tears and immolation.

The scenic designs of Alfons Flores are front-loaded with Spanish Catholic imagery enveloped in a vast array of crucifixes (1200, so the programme tells us)—all for an imaginary parallel universe in which human sacrifice and infanticide are part of life’s tapestry. We get the message: in today’s chaotic world organised religion is a bad thing.

Yoncheva's honey-sweet voice is rich in drama

Thankfully, Sonya Yoncheva is a good thing. The Bulgarian soprano makes her role debut as Norma in a production that had been conceived as a vehicle for Anna Netrebko. The Russian withdrew from the project as late as last April; frustrating, but that’s the risk you take when you cast a diva. Happily, Yoncheva’s performance is mellifluous and powerful. She is neither Callas nor Sutherland, but her honey-sweet voice is rich in drama and easily overcomes the excesses of Ollé’s crucifixation.

Musically, indeed, this Norma is an all-round triumph. Antonio Pappano treats Bellini’s meagre, broken-chord accompaniments to his melodically exquisite arias with a musician’s respect, and his loving conviction helps them soar with passion.

Joseph Calleja as Pollione looks and sounds properly muscular—no languid bel canto tenor, he—and his smart-suited brutishness makes his attractiveness to Norma (and to Sonia Ganassi‘s unprepossessing Adalgisa) entirely plausible.

Despite all the directorial intrusion, the characters’ onstage behaviour is notably conventional. Only rarely do Ollé’s ideas affect their interaction. Sometimes the result is a happy one, as when Adalgisa vouchsafes her love for Pollione in a confssional; sometimes it's gratuitous, as in a final flourish that sees an enraged Oroveso (Brindley Sherratt) deny his daughter Norma the satisfaction of dying on her own terms.

In one extraordinary domestic scene Norma’s supposedly secret children, the products of her shameful liaison with Pollione (she’s a priestess, remember, complete with dog collar), come home from the local school to a luxuriously appointed apartment where they’re able to enjoy all the trappings of a privileged modern upbringing. I’m still trying to work that one out.

Norma runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 8 October.