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In Review London Norma hdl 2 1016
Brindley Sherratt, Sonya Yoncheva and Joseph Calleja in Alex Ollé’s production of Norma at Royal Opera
© Bill Cooper
In Review London norma lg 1016
Joseph Calleja's Pollione
© Bill Cooper
In Review London Norma lg 2 1016
Sonia Ganassi as Adalgisa
© Bill Cooper

IT'S BEEN ALMOST THIRTY YEARS since the Royal Opera last essayed a fully staged Norma, in a production by John Copley and starring Margaret Price that was pretty well considered a total failure. On September 12, the company once again took up the greatest bel canto challenge of them all, this time with members of the fashionable Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus collaborating on the staging. The project had been planned for Anna Netrebko, but last April—to the barely disguised anger of the ROH—the Russian diva announced her withdrawal from a production predicated upon her much-anticipated participation. In Netrebko’s stead, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva stepped up to the Druid priestess.

The opera’s dramatic foundation is a situation of conflict between two peoples committed to distinct religions: what makes Norma individually special as the Druid high priestess is her people’s belief in her intimate connection to the divine. Her terrible end is the result of her betrayal not only of them but also of the faith that gives them the strength to withstand the Roman occupation. With sets by Alfons Flores and costumes by Lluc Castells, Alex Ollé’s imagery for the piece drops Gauls and Romans, instead taking place within what he describes as “today’s religion, today’s militarism and today’s political elite.” The stage was enclosed by a vast metallic frame that was composed of hundreds of gray metal crucifixes. At the beginning of Act II, there was a rare concession to the domestic provided by a contemporary living room in which Clotilde (Vlada Borovko) and her mistress interacted with the two children—one of them occupied with a video game, the other bouncing happily around on a space hopper, while Watership Down was seen playing in the background. 

Though two opposing sides remain the theoretical antagonists of the libretto, visually Ollé and Castells present just the one group: some sort of violent right-wing Catholic militia, replete with uniforms and sinister pointy hats, yet with women priests at its epicenter. Every character on stage—from Oroveso and the entire chorus to Pollione—seems to be on the same side. “At one point we were considering the possibility of using a war setting for this production,” wrote the director in his program note. “In the end, however, we decided to go in a different direction.” That direction has led Ollé and associate director Valentina Carrasco to create an inert behemoth of a production in which individual differences between characters were not so much blurred as eradicated; the intense personal drama at the heart of the piece has simply fallen apart. In light of this major failing, the fact that Oroveso’s forgiveness of his errant daughter at the close of the opera consists of him shooting her seems a minor contravention of reasonable expectations.

Ample compensation was provided by Yoncheva’s priestess. Now thirty-four, Yoncheva made a consistent and almost entirely successful attempt at assuming the manifold difficulties of the title role, her tonal beauty never compromised, whatever her level of attack. Even if in this unsympathetic and essentially incoherent staging her overall performance was not much more than a sketch from a dramatic point of view, what she achieved was nevertheless praiseworthy, and promises more.

Sonia Ganassi sang the role of Adalgisa, a role Bellini in any case designed for a soprano rather than, as here, the traditional mezzo; all the same she gave a hardworking and solidly respectable account of it. Joseph Calleja brought some personal flair and tenorial passion to Pollione. As Oroveso, Brindley Sherratt was in rough voice, his high notes in particular a problem on this occasion. 

The chorus—now under its new director, William Spaulding, but for this show chorus-mastered by Genevieve Ellis—had a good night, as did the orchestra, but Norma’s powerful musical drama really needs more momentum and attack than conductor Antonio Pappano provided here.  —George Hall 

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