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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma, Opera in two acts (1831) [154 mins]
Sonya Yoncheva (Norma), Joseph Calleja (Pollione), Sonia Ganassi (Adalgisa), Brindley Sherratt (Oroveso), David Junghoon Kim (Flavio), Vlada Borovko (Clotilde)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Director, Alex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus). Associate Director, Valentina Carrasco. Set Designer, Alfons
rec. 2016
Sound format, Dolby Digital. Dts Surround Sound. Picture Format, 16:9 Anamorphic
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Korean and Japanese.
Notes and synopsis in, English, French and German
OPUS ARTE OA1247D DVD [169 mins]

Of the great bel canto composers of the primo ottocento Bellini had the easiest passage to fame. Born in Catania, Sicily, in 1801, his father and grandfather were musicians and minor composers. Under their tuition it was reported that Vincenzo could play the piano marvellously at little more than five years of age and was writing sacred music by seven. His grandfather having taught him all he could, Bellini went to study at the Conservatory at Naples in 1819. It was a custom of the institution to introduce a composition student who had completed his studies to the public with a dramatic work and Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, an opera semi seria, was presented with a cast of male students in the conservatory’s theatre. Its success led to a commission from the Royal Theatre of Naples, the San Carlo, to write an opera for a gala evening in May 1826. This too met with success and Bellini received an invitation from La Scala, Milan, where his third opera, Il Pirata was received with acclaim in October 1827. The Milan commission brought Bellini into contact with the librettist Romani and the two started a fruitful collaboration. This was based not only on the composer’s liking for Romani’s verses but also on personal friendship; this friendship tended to blur the composer’s irritation with his librettists dilatory manner as to delivery dates!

Between 1827 and 1833 Bellini lived in Milan and the success of his works gave him entrée to the higher social circles. Although he never held a musical post, the popularity of his operas and their unique character allowed Bellini to ask a higher price for his compositions than had been the norm in Italy previously. Some music critics saw dangers in the novel style he was evolving. Bellini was not perturbed and he wrote in March 1830 “My style is now heard in the most important theatres in the world”. However, all was not a bed of roses for the young and handsome man who had as his mistress the wife of a wealthy local industrialist. He suffered the first bout of the gastro-intestinal problems from which he was to die within five years. After convalescence, and aborting an opera based on Victor Hugo’s Hernani because of censorship fears, he presented La Sonnambula at Milan’s Carcano Theatre in the season staged by the Duke of Litta, and two rich associates, involving Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Rubini (Review). It was an enormous success and Bellini was commissioned to write an opera to open the 1831-32 Carnival Season at La Scala, with Romani as librettist. The subject chosen was Norma.

Given the complete absence of a staged performance of this opera, widely recognised as one of the greatest of the bel canto genre, at Covent Garden for nearly fifty years, and thinking back to productions for Callas in 1953 and later for Sutherland, one would have hoped for an imaginative production true to the story. But the powers that be at Covent Garden in the period of this production, originally staged with Anna Netrebko intended for the title role, chose the Catalan production team of La Fura dels Baus who seem to believe that the composer’s intentions are of no importance to audience enjoyment or even comprehension. Thus the staging is updated to the twentieth century with Norma being a Catholic priest who even enters a confessional box to take Adalgisa’s confession of her affair. It seems to have escaped the production team that the Catholic Church have not yet got round to women priests, or so the Vicar of Rome still believes! The whole set is surrounded by seemingly thousands of crucifixes with a swinging thurible and hand incense shaking apparatus. The rebel fighters are costumed more in General Franco period than early Christian.

The story of Norma, the eponymous High Priestess of a Druid Sect in Roman occupied Gaul, concerns her love affair with Pollione, an officer of the occupying Roman troops to whom she, unknown to all, has borne two children. To the frustration of her father, Oroveso, Norma will not allow an uprising against the occupying troops. However, she discovers that Pollione has transferred his affection to the younger Adalgisa, who, learning of Norma’s love for him, tries to get him to return to her in a series of duets and trios that finish act one and which also includes the formidably demanding aria for Norma, ‘Casta Diva’. (Ch.9). In act two Adalgisa vows loyalty to Norma and the two swear friendship in the lovely duet ‘Mira o Norma’ (Chs 26, 27). Pollione bloodied, but still in his Saville Row suit of Act One, appears and he comes to realise what he has lost as Norma asks her father to look after their children, who she had earlier been tempted to kill, and enters the funeral pyre along with Pollione. Oreveso, dressed in formal military uniform, wearing three rows of medals and looking like General Franco reincarnate, reluctantly accedes. In keeping with the production the symbolic funeral pyre is in the form of a cross.

Of the singing one must start with Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva who was singing this killer role for the first time. She was fortunate to have as her conductor the musical director of Covent Garden on the rostrum and for musical preparation. To say he nursed her through would be an insult to her, but his contribution to her amazing singing and interpretation should not be underestimated. She has one or two vocally squally moments, particularly in Act Two as she parades her emotions in smart trouser suit from the best tailor that any priest, male or female could hope for. If she resists the temptations of heavier roles she could grow into an international star of the highest magnitude in this repertoire. As things are, hers was a formidable achievement given the circumstances, but not wholly perfect. I for one will watch her future with interest, while being grateful for those who released her to be able to take up the gap left by Netrebko, who considered her vocal strengths were heading elsewhere. As Norma’s rival, Adalgisa, Sonia Ganassi has sung the role many times and it showed in her whole body commitment and facial acting allied to her outstandingly sung interpretation. As Clotilde, the role Sutherland sang to Callas’ Norma in the famous 1953 production, Vlada Borovka exhibited an appealing tone and acted well.

On the male side I was less impressed. Whilst Joseph Calleja sang strongly, and acted well, I looked for a little more expression and plangent tone in his interpretation. As Oroveso, Brindley Sherratt was reliable but undistinguished and looked pretentiously silly in his military uniform as the rebels armed themselves with rifles and were similarly dressed in immaculate uniforms.

I do not know how much this production cost, but I doubt if it will be revived very often and will join the growing list of Covent Garden’s former Director of Opera, Kasper Holten’s, misconceived appointments.

The accompanying booklet has essays and synopsis in English, French and German, but lacks a Chapter listing. I find the latter to be a significant omission on certain labels.

Robert J Farr



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