And it is the natural beauty of the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, taking on this demanding title role quite early in her career, that is the highlight of a new production at Covent Garden. There were first night boos, but not for Yoncheva, whose intelligently pitched performance never overstretched the voice and found the tenderness in a role that can be strident. Since making her ROH debut in 2012, she has grown with every production, and this is a special moment.
Yoncheva was released from her commitment to sing Mimì in La Bohème by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, to sing this role instead of Anna Netrebko, who withdrew shortly after her casting was announced, earlier this year. Covent Garden definitely got the best of the deal.
But she has a job on her hands. Bellini's opera pitches the Druids against the Romans, so to kick the whole affair into the present day, and turn the Druids into Roman Catholics makes a tremendous muddle of an already tricky plot. Snippets of rituals borrowed from Christianity are bolted together meaninglessly, and the (female) head of the church with her (female) cardinals are hellbent on armed combat and self-immolation. It's quite a long way from the committee meetings and confirmation classes that make up the daily round of most parish priests.
Against this distorted backdrop, it is still possible, however to discern the timeless and universal elements – a love triangle, the twin pulls of motherhood and duty, women united. And it is the scene in which Norma considers destroying her own children, and then is temporarily at peace with the woman who has stolen her secret husband's affections, that is the heart and soul of this production. Like much of the opera, we watch with dread, for the consequences may be terrible.
After designer Alfons Flores's honeycomb towers of little crucifixes, suggesting both the sacred wood in which Bellini intended the action to take place and the tracery of church architecture, we are jolted into cool domesticity: two children lounge on ice blue modular sofas, a rabbit cartoon on their widescreen, a space hopper lolling ready to bounce the little girl in time with the music.
Yoncheva, who has already sung her first big number to the accompaniment of a gigantic, pendular censor, now has frightened bunnies alongside, like a silent backing group – it's nicely done. And Marco Filibeck's lighting really understands the light and shade, the heat and cooling, of emotions.
The Italian mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi is lovely as Adalgisa, the friend and colleague who becomes a rival in love. Personally I find it difficult to love the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja's tremulous Pollione, but he has a following, and it's a matter of taste. The bass Brindley Sherratt plays Norma's father, who is charged in this prouction with a surprise ending.
And so to those boos. They came from seats at all prices, and felt pretty much aimed at the production, not the musicians: there was wonderful chorus singing, and the orchestra under Antonio Pappano were on cracking form. No, it was director Àlex Ollé, of the Catalan collective La Fura dels Baus, who challenged a lot of opera-goers with his topsy-turvy take on religion and paganism.
But they will have a while to get used to it – a lavish production like this is not going to be mothballed after one outing. And the incoming director of opera, 37-year-old Oliver Mears, whose appointment was announced on this first day of the 2016/17 season, probably won't mind his new house being a place where passions run high.
Norma is relayed live to cinemas nationwide on 26 September. For more details click here.
|Norma review , Royal Opera House
|Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
|Covent Garden (underground)
12 Sep 16 – 08 Oct 16, Times vary; running time 3 hours 10 minutes
|£11 - £225