Tuesday 13 September 2016

Religious fervour: La Fura dels Baus dramatic interpretation of Bellini's Norma at Covent Garden

Sonya Yoncheva - Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
Sonya Yoncheva - Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
Bellini Norma; Sonya Yoncheva, Joseph Calleja, Sonia Ganassi, Brindley Sherratt, dir: Alex Ollé, cond: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 13 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Covent Garden's first new Norma for nearly 30 years, with a setting of particularly Iberian religious intensity

Joseph Calleja, Sonya Yoncheva - Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
Joseph Calleja, Sonya Yoncheva
Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
I have had the dubious honour of seeing the Covent Garden's two previous productions of Bellini's Norma, the rather indifferent 1979 revival of Sandro Sequi's traditional if stylised production with Grace Bumbry in the title role sounding as if she thought Bellini was early Verdi, and John Copley's new production of 1987 with Margaret Price in the title role, notable perhaps for the amount of bare flesh shown both by the men (actors I presume) and for the unflattering nature of Price's costume (I have little remembrance of the singing!). My happiest memories of a production of Norma date from 1993 at Scottish Opera when Ian Judge's Henry and Hornel inspired production with Jane Eaglen in the title role seemed to combined musicality, imagination and drama in the right combination.

More recently there have been productions at Grange Park Opera (in 2009 with Claire Rutter), Opera Holland Park (in 2014 with Yvonne Howard, see my review), and English National Opera (in 2016 with Marjorie Owens, see my review). I missed the performances by Cecilia Bartoli in Edinburgh but read the reports with interest (see my article).

Sonia Ganassi - Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
Sonia Ganassi - Norma
(c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
Covent Garden's new production of Norma has been through some permutations before the production debuted on Monday 12 September. Soprano Anna Netrebko had withdrawn, to be replaced by the young Bulgarian lyric coloratura Soniya Yoncheva, a move away from a big dramatic voice to a more lyric one which reflects the variety of casting which is possible in the role. The production was created by the team from La Fura dels Baus which was responsible for the recent production of Enescu's Oedipe (see my review), director by Alex Ollé, associate director Valentina Carrasco, set designer Alfons Flores and costume designer Lluc Castells with lighting by Marco Filibeck. Sonya Yoncheva sang Norma, with Joseph Calleja as Pollione, Sonia Ganassi as Adalgisa, Brindley Sherratt as Oroveso, Vlada Borovko as Clotilde and David Junghoon Kim as Flavio. Antonio Pappano conducted the Royal Opera House orchestra.

Ollé's production emphasised the religious background of the piece, he comments in an article in the programme booklet that Norma's 'biggest sin may be that of trying to be happy in a society drugged by a religion which believes happiness is only to be found in the arms of a God capable of fanatically demanding destruction and warfare.' The production's response to the opera was a specifically Iberian one, depicting the religion of the Druids as a form of intense, extreme Catholicism (albeit with female priests) with iconography and ceremonies clearly based on the intense form of religion in the Iberian peninsuala with its confraternities, costumes including the cloaks and hoods (capirote) worn during holy week and even a giant swinging thurible during 'Casta diva'.

The set was a basic forest, except this forest was made up of crucifixes to create a flexible and very striking acting space. For the opening scenes of Act One this space was gradually filled with all the detritus of a large-scale religious space, whilst for the opening of Act Two, Norma's dwelling was a modernist interior strewn with toys and games (and including a large-screen TV).

Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House Orchestra produced a big boned, highly dramatic, very traditional account of the overture which seemed to suggest the style of performance Pappano might have given with a more dramatic soprano in the title role. Thankfully things calmed down somewhat afterwards.
Sonya Yoncheva - Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
Sonya Yoncheva
(c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
The opera opened with something of a dramaturgical error, as Brindley Sherratt (Oroveso) and the chorus was placed far up stage, which meant that Sherratt voice just was not able to impose itself on the ensemble in the way it ought. But the main scene with the appearance of Norma (Sonya Yoncheva) was stunning as Ollé and his collaborators clearly understood how to create religious ritual on stage in a way which was credible (few directors seem able to do this in Puccini's Tosca). And the surprising thing was how well the essentially Catholic ritual worked with the dramaturgy of Bellini's opera, both here and in the subsequent scenes. So that the Act One scene between Norma and Adalgisa (Sonia Ganassi) started out as Adalgisa confessing to Norma.

The opening to Act Two was less successful. The hyper-realistic setting with the modernist interior strewn with toys, and with a TV playing the cartoon of Watership Down formed a distracting back drop to the crucial scenes with Norma contemplating killing her children and then the duet with Adalgisa. Ollé seemed to emphasise this by keeping the cartoon running throughout the whole of the scene (and the TV was big enough to make out the action in distracting detail), and by having the children running about during the duet.

The final scene was also something of a disappointment, perhaps a failure of nerve. The opening sections built well, but led to a highly static final scene. There was no funeral pyre, just a fiery cross in the background, and the opera ended with the crowd taking Norma and Pollione (Joseph Calleja) towards this, though Oroveso then shoots Norma. So there was no sense of sacrifice, and little visible sign of Pollione's change of heart and decision to join Norma on the pyre. The musical element was also rather worrying here, because in many of the final ensembles Pappano seemed to push the orchestra and chorus so that the neither Yoncheva nor Calleja could really soar over the ensemble.

Brindley Sherratt, members of Royal Oper Chorus - Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
Brindley Sherratt, members of Royal Oper Chorus
(c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
The problem with realistic productions is that they set you thinking about the details, and this new production left a lot of questions open. If the Gauls were so intensely at war, how come everyone in the religious services looked so spic and span and prosperous, and if Norma was supposed to be hiding her children, how come her lodgings were strewn with children's toys and such.

Sonya Yoncheva made a strong Norma, she has a flexible lyric voice but one with a slight Slavic edge to it which gave her performance a nice combination of facility in the fioriture and intensity. Her account of 'Casta diva' moved from the lyric beauty of the  opening of the cavatina, through the rapture of fioriture sung cleanly and with intensity to the vehemence of the caballeta. Yoncheva showed herself well able to use the coloratura for expressive purposes. But Norma is not really about extreme vocal display and Yoncheva also seemed well at home in the long, expressive lines of the part, bringing a strong sense to the arioso recitative . The final scene of Act One with the trio with Ganassi and Calleja was wonderfully vehement, but the opening scene of Act Two was something of a disappointment. Finely and expressively sung, it did not chill the way it should and I began to wonder whether Norma is the sort of role best undertaken after a significant amount of life experience (Yoncheva is just 34).

Sonia Ganassi made a fine, traditional Adalgisa (a mezzo-soprano to Norma's soprano), though you had to accept that the 'young virgin' was played by a performer significantly more mature than the singer playing the older Norma. Though there were perhaps one or two uneven moments attributable to first night nerves, Ganassi brought out the strength of Adalgisa's feelings and crucially blended admirably with Yoncheva so that the duets were, rightly, one of the highlights of the opera. Both Yoncheva and Ganassi showed themselves able to use the coloratura for expressive purposes, so that their duets were both a delight and really meant something dramatically.

Joseph Calleja seemed to take some time to settle down, his opening aria was well sung but seemed to require some management of the voice and lacked dramatic intensity. Calleja is not the most physically dramatic of singers, and Ollé does not seem to have weaned him off a rather stock array of gestures. Calleja has an essentially lyric voice and his best moments were the more intimate ones, and I loved the way he was able to shade his voice down for some of the quieter high-lying phrases. Not for the first time, the role rather came over as nice-but-dim. But in the crucial final scenes, he was stunningly able to match Yoncheva in their duets, both bringing a finely concentrated intensity to them.

Brindley Sherratt was nastier than usual Oroveso, the performance lacked the dramatic impact which I have experienced from this singer in smaller theatres and I suspect that both Ollé and Pappano could have been more sympathetic in this aspect. Both David Junghoon Kim and Vlada Borovko impressed in the smaller roles of Flavio and Clotilde.

Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
Norma - Royal Opera - (c) ROH, photographer Bill Cooper
In the pit Pappano seemed to be rather hankering for the sort of big-boned dramatic performance of the work which used to be traditional. But with an essentially lyric cast there was scope for exploring the other resonances of Bellini's score. But, not for the first time when conducting Italian opera, you sensed that Pappano was unwilling to go beyond the traditional, and we had little in the way of exploration of what it might mean to give a more lyric performance of Norma in a house the size of Covent Garden.

This is a production which has great possibilities. You sense that the performances will settle more into their roles in this run. And I do hope that the production comes back, assuming that Alex Ollé and his collaborators are willing to re-work and re-think some elements.

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