Review – Norma (Royal Opera House, Monday 12 September 2016)
Norma – Sonya Yoncheva
Pollione – Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa – Sonia Ganassi
Oroveso – Brindley Sherratt
Flavio – David Junghoon Kim
Clotilde – Vlada Borovko
Director – Àlex Ollé
Associate Director – Valentina Carrasco
Set Designer – Alfons Flores
Costume Designer – Lluc Castells
Lighting Designer – Marco Filibeck
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (Conductor)
It’s an almost impossible as – to sing Norma at Covent Garden. All those ghosts in the wings. Replacing a colleague who’s much trumped assumption of the role failed to materialise.
But it was, in my opinion, a triumph.
Sonya Yoncheva not only ensured the ghosts remained firmly in the shadows but delivered a fine debut. Of course, there are elements that need working on – no interpretation remains static but with time Yoncheva’s will be Norma to be reckoned with. Vocally this was an assured performance – she didn’t shirk from the challenge of either the coloratura or the tessitura that was at the extreme of her range. She tackled them head on, and it made for a thrilling experience. She is also firmly in control of a formidable technique that allowed for the exploitation of the dynamic range that is often missing on any stage. Casts Diva – so early on that the expectation was almost tangible – packed the necessary punch. Yoncheva’s control of the vocal line, spinning it out over chorus and orchestra, was impressive. I’ve no doubt that even in the space of the remaining performances at Covent Garden she will relax more and more into the role and begin to experiment with vocal shade and colour. The opening of Act Two was equally thrilling. Her torment and anger spilled out across the auditorium as she vacillated between thoughts of revenge and maternal love. Yet it was that single, simple moment when she makes her fateful admission that sealed her debut performance. The stillness of it. Bellini’s knows drama. Yoncheva made it come alive.
And yet Yoncheva wasn’t alone in this endeavour. It’s something that I realized while listening to Netrebko’s latest and possibly defining recital disc – the influence of Pappano. He always been a fine conductor, always a singer’s conductor, but at this moment in time Pappano has become pre-eminent. The relationship – that elusive bond – between soprano and conductor was front and centre in a way that wasn’t as evident with the rest of the cast.
The rest of the cast was fortunately caught up in the eddies of that musical and interpretive association. Calleja, always a wooden actor, sprung more to life in the second act but his singing was not his best. A slow start and moments of strain distracted. Ganassi, despite formidable technique and a voice that produced some fine light and shade, seemed lost in that space. She truly came to life in the Second Act duet within Yoncheva. Sherratt’s Oroveso was the strongest of them all, carrying clearly above chorus and orchestra in the first act. His final act was unexpected and shocking. Denying his daughter not only a painful death, but robbing her, I thought quite cruelly of her dignity.
The booing for the production team honestly left me nonplussed. Set, so it seemed to me in an alternate version of Franco’s Spain, the clash of religious fervor and military might was undermined by a simple reversal of roles. Women, led by Norma, as Catholic priests. A simple ‘heresy’ that was effective in raising questions of God, power and ultimately equality.
A set constructed of crucifixes was offset by what I could only see as a crown of thorns made from the same crucifixes. Àlex Ollé is clearly deeply affected by his upbringing in some way – that clash in Spain between Church and State.
Unlike others, I didn’t find the set distracting. I found it effectively oppressive. I believe that was the intention. The opening scene of the second act, suddenly thrust us into the twenty-first century. A secular world at odds with Norma’s life. It was no mistake that this world sunk into the ground, and out of sight. It was a world that needed to remain out of sight. And mind. And the significance of Warership Down? A desire for freedom? An escape to a new life free from authoritarian diktat? Perhaps.
I’ve already mentioned that special bond between Pappano and his chief protagonist but his mastery extended to the orchestra and chorus. From the opening notes of the overture, the precision was impressive. But he reached into the score and found the colour and timbre needed. Strings were lush. Woodwind and brass striking out above them plangently.
All in all, a strong opening for a promising season.