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DVD Button Yoncheva, Ganassi, Borovko; Calleja, Kim, Sherratt; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Pappano.  Production: Ollé. Opus Arte OA BD7225D (Blu-ray)/1247D (DVD), 154 mins. (opera), 15 mins. (bonus), subtitles

Para-Norma Activity.

Àlex Ollé’s Covent Garden staging of Bellini’s classic is an unholy mess.

Recordings Norma hdl 518
Mother of the Year: Yoncheva at Covent Garden
© Bill Cooper
Recordings Norma Cover lg 518

HAVE YOU EVER, in some lazy daydream, imagined Bellini’s Norma as a surplice-clad, Roman-collared Catholic priest, saying mass to “Casta diva” as a giant censer swings pendulum-like overhead, dispensing its fragrant smoke in a “forest” of hundreds of crucifixes? Have you mused, during the overture, about a drill at a militaristic Catholic school, its students in short pants and plaid skirts, their heads covered with the cone-shaped capirotes once worn by penitents in the Spanish Inquisition and later embraced by the Ku Klux Klan? Have you pictured Oroveso as a baldie in shades with epaulettes and multiple medals? Wondered why you’ve never seen Norma’s children watching Watership Down on a flatscreen TV? Well, take heart: Àlex Ollé gives you all that—and so much more—in this bizarre staging, captured in September 2016 at London’s Royal Opera House.

With it, of course, go a slew of unanswered questions. How, in this very right-wing Catholic society, did women become the religious bigwigs? Whom are these nattily uniformed, Franco-Fascist “Gauls” fighting? Why does this latter-day Norma mobilize the troops with a very old-fashioned gong? And who the heck is Pollione, anyway? Ollé and his design team—Alfons Flores (sets), Lluc Castells (costumes) and Marco Filibeck (lighting)—create some striking images, ones I’m not unhappy to have seen. But overall this hyperreligious Norma is an unholy mess. 

It’s not much redeemed by its casting, though there are pleasures here. Joseph Calleja brings his uniquely beautiful timbre and easy command of style to Pollione—as well as some uncertainly pitched high notes in his Act I cabaletta. He also acts with conviction. Sonia Ganassi is a long-practiced, vocally adept Adalgisa. A decade senior to both her Norma and her Pollione, she upsets the opera’s dramatic balance: with unkempt coiffure and wild histrionics, she’s less suggestive of a virginal young priestess than an Azucena who’s happened upon the wrong pyre. Brindley Sherratt, whom I’ve often enjoyed, sounds strained, a far cry from the smooth, rolling basso cantante Oroveso demands, though I salute his pistol-to-the-temple mercy-killing of his daughter before she’s marched off to the far-more-painful flames.  

And I can applaud Sonya Yoncheva’s pluck for tackling her first Norma when Anna Netrebko backed out—well, half-applaud, because she really wasn’t ready to deliver more than half a Norma; neither vocally nor temperamentally does the role fit. As always, there’s her lush, lovely midrange, with its liquid legato. But there are also her recurrent problems up top—flatness, sourness, blasting, an inability to really float the sound. She avoids the high options and, alas, just isn’t exciting. Dramatically, as well, she’s too placid and contained; this is a Norma who, faced with Pollione’s betrayal, wags a scolding finger at him, like a prim schoolmarm at an unruly pupil. (The ecclesiastical getup doesn’t help.)  

Antonio Pappano conducts a smart, taut account of what’s hardly a conductor’s opera and incidentally supplies, amid the bonus content, one of the release’s pleasures—his charmingly tone-deficient singing of snippets of “Casta diva” and “Ah, bello a me ritorna.” I’ll probably return to those for another view and listen, but not to the rest of the show. —Patrick Dillon 

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