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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Norma – Sonya Yoncheva
Pollione – Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa – Sonia Ganassi
Oroveso – Brindley Sherratt
Flavio – David Junghoon Kim
Clotilde – Vlada Borokovo
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Alex Ollé (director)
rec. live, Royal Opera House, London, September 2016
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; DTS 5.1
OPUS ARTE OABD7225D Blu-ray [169 mins]

The Royal Opera originally conceived this new production of Norma, their first in decades, to showcase the bel canto talents of Anna Netrebko. However, La Netrebko ultimately decided that the part was not for her and withdrew with very little notice (though, to be fair to her, she did so before ticket sales began). Covent Garden filled the gap with the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, and it’s a credit to the quality of the replacement that she never once feels like a stand-in.

In fact, this is something of a star-is-born moment for Yoncheva. That’s a bit unfair, because she was already well known internationally before this production, but her assumption of Norma is so confident and assured that you can’t help but feel that it has projected her into a slightly higher echelon. Everything is there in the voice. There is imperious declamation in her opening recitative and in Casta Diva, and then there is fragile vulnerability in her scenes with the children, not to mention wounded reminiscence as she recalls her early love for Pollione, before achieving heroic heights during her final scene with Pollione. Throughout, Yoncheva fills every aspect of the priestess’s character with the skill of a great actress as well as a great singer, and I found her portrayal highly admirable, all the more so when you consider that it is her first assumption of the role and at such short notice. More, please.

As her Pollione, Joseph Calleja sounds confident, masculine and assertive. I’ve grown a little less fond of his voice in recent years as its nasal quality has become more pronounced, but that’s a personal thing, and if you like its colour then you will like his performance here. He certainly has all the equipment to sing the role very well. Brindely Sherratt booms along convincingly as Oroveso, and the cameos are sung well. The only weak vocal link is Sonia Ganassi, who sounds way past her best here. She makes the role of Adalgisa sound effortful and laboured, and there is little in her performance to suggest the wide-eyed young novice. It doesn’t help that she looks old enough to be Norma’s mother, but it’s the vocal weaknesses that are more serious.

As always at this address, however, the conducting, playing and choral singing are top notch. Antonio Pappano’s name is not one you might automatically associate with bel canto, but this is the most dramatic of Bellini’s scores, and it suits his instincts very well. He also appears in a couple of short extra films, and he showcases again why he is such a great evangelist for opera, as well as a brilliantly gifted educator. The orchestra bounce along lightly, and the chorus make a wonderful sound throughout.

Alex Ollé’s production is confused and a bit daft, but not so much that it gets in the way of the musical drama. He describes Norma as a drama of the conflict of the individual against the state, and he chooses to put this in the context of an oppressive twentieth century Christianity that bears a more than passing resemblance to the Catholicism of his native Spain, not least in the cloaked, hooded figures who might have stepped straight out of a Semana Santa procession. Norma herself is the high priestess of this order, something that would, of course, be impossible in a Roman Catholic context, and so the gender-bending concept feels a little fragile, despite the fact that Yoncheva is dressed rather androgynously for most of the production. It’s not wilful enough to get in the way, though, and I must say I thought a lot of it looked rather handsome. That’s especially true of the forest of crucifixes that makes up the side walls of the production, and which float in and out of the staging majestically, as does a crown of thorns that descends from on high. The one major misstep is to have Norma’s children watching Watership Down on TV in the opening scene of Act 2: for anyone who grew up watching that film, it’s hard to drag your eyes off it to wonder what the priestesses are saying to one another!

As I said when I reviewed the recent Norma from the Liceu, the opera hasn’t been lucky on DVD, and on balance I think I prefer the Liceu one to this. This comes a very close second, though, and it’s particularly cherishable for Yoncheva’s thrilling first foray into this Everest of the soprano repertoire. The Blu-ray picture quality is excellent, as is the surround sound.

Simon Thompson

Previous review (DVD): Robert J Farr



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