Thursday 29 September 2016

Bellini - Norma (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Vincenzo Bellini - Norma

Royal Opera House, 2016

Àlex Ollé, Antonio Pappano, Sonya Yoncheva, Joseph Calleja, Sonia Ganassi, Brindley Sherratt, David Junghoon Kim, Vlada Borovko

Cinema Season Live - 26 September 2016

What is a director to do with Norma? Like many bel canto operas, it would seem to be going a bit overboard to invest too much historical realism into a plot that is more concerned with the romantic complications and emotional states of its main characters, and the dramatic contrivances don't really lend themselves all that well to it being applied to a contemporary updating. Àlex Ollé, of the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus, is not wrong however when he considers that there are deeper considerations at play here in Norma that pit individuals and human nature against social, religious and political forces.

Proving the point, the dramatic force of Bellini's setting of these issues is brought to life and fully felt in the musical and the stage direction of this highly charged Royal Opera House production, even if Ollé's Spanish Civil War-inspired setting doesn't really establish a convincing new context for the issues it raises. A production of Norma neither loses nor gains much from its ancient setting that pits the Gauls and their druids against the Roman occupying forces, but it is important and relevant in our own times to consider how religion can be used as a tool to motivate individuals towards actions that otherwise would be inconceivable.

What Norma should have is impact, and visually at least set designer Alfons Flores's forest of dramatically lit crucifixes matches the intensity of where the opera is pitched. Religious iconography is evident also in the priestly costumes, the children's choir, hooded processions and a huge swinging thurible solemnly wafting incense around during Norma's 'Casta Diva', and it's associated here with a fascist movement, Brindley Sherratt's Oroveso styled to look very like Generalissimo Franco. It's debatable that the analogy works - a suit-wearing Pollione hardly matches the image of the Romans as being Republican opposition - but the stage setting at least keeps the overarching theme very present throughout, suitably overblown to match the nature of the dramatic representation.

Such grand gestures are to be expected in Norma, and they serve their function well right through to the dreadful choices between following her heart or her duty that the priestess must weigh up in the second Act. The confused narrative of the production's analogy doesn't allow her sacrifice to appear as anything more than a grand gesture, but it certainly felt like it was a hard-reached decision of someone who has been pushed to the limits of what their conscience will endure. It takes a lot more than grand gestures to make that work: it takes some great singing.

Evidently much of that rests on your Norma. In the case of this production, the early withdrawal of Anna Netrebko proved to be a great opportunity for Sonya Yoncheva to show that she is ready to be catapulted to the same level of international stardom, and she rose to the occasion. This was an outstanding performance that felt like something very special indeed. Yoncheva might not be as studiously perfect in this role as Netrebko might have been had her voice not developed in other directions, but it contained every ounce of emotion required to grapple with the depths of the role, qualities that are very much there to be found in the music that Bellini wrote for this part.

Joseph Calleja was also outstanding alongside her as Pollione. Calleja has a classic romantic lyrical tenor voice, but he shows that he can also bring that vital edge of steely determination that is needed for this role. Pollione is not a straightforward character and not one that you can easily sympathise with, but he likewise has chosen to follow his own heart and risk betraying his own people, and he is prepared to suffer the consequences for it as long as innocent people do not suffer for his actions. Calleja's singing and acting performance grasped the nature of his character's grappling with this position and his voice rang out the truth of it.

Between Yoncheva and Calleja you have the makings of a great Norma here, and the production doesn't let them down on any other front. Adalgisa is a vital component who inadvertently sows the discord that leads to the tumultuous conclusion, but she is also the bridge that links up the dramatic and emotional undercurrents. Sonia Ganassi take this up well, but is particularly strong when she has to rise to Yoncheva's level in their Act I duet, 'Sola, furtiva al tempio', the two women's voices blending beautifully. Antonio Pappano's conducting emphasised the more dramatic side of the score while retaining its melodic qualities, the work as a consequence bristling with life and charged with emotion. The Royal Opera House production is everything that a good Norma should be.