Military Religion: Norma at the Royal Opera House

Bellini ­– Norma

Norma – Sonya Yoncheva
Pollione – Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa – Sonia Ganassi
Oroveso – Brindley Sherratt
Flavio – David Junghoon Kim
Clotilde – Vlada Borovko

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Stage director – Àlex Ollé.

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Monday, September 12th, 2016.

Tonight’s performance of Norma was the 356th at the Royal Opera House though it hasn’t actually been seen there in quite a while.  Norma is a piece that seems to be quite in vogue right now – the last year has seen productions in Seville, Barcelona, València, Paris, Venice, Munich, Madrid and more.  The demands on the singer in the title role are of course immense and tonight marked Sonya Yoncheva’s prise de rôle.  I imagine that the pressure must have been quite something to perform this iconic role in a theatre that has seen so many of the most famed former exponents perform within its walls.

Ensemble © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016
Ensemble © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016

The staging was the work of La Fura dels Baus.  The set (Alfons Flores) seemingly a wall of crucifixes and the druids were catholic priests.  We saw penitents processing around the set and Norma performed her rituals in priest’s vestments.  This was a military society too with Oroveso wearing military dress uniform.  As an idea of creating a strongly oppressive religious society it had some merits but there were also some issues with this.  The Catholic Church’s attitude to women is well known and it was easy to wonder why Norma would have been able to rise through the ranks to lead the people in the way that she did.  There was a nice touch in how Adalgisa confessed her love for Pollione as if in a confessional though.  Furthermore, characters seemed under-developed. We seemingly had no idea of who the Romans were or why the two peoples were in conflict. The principals were barely directed, often just standing and delivering to the front.  The chorus was just marched on and off efficiently but without any particular imagination.  Sonia Ganassi’s Adalgisa tried hard to inject some dramatic life into her character, working hard with the text to create a fully-rounded personality but otherwise the overall effect was of anonymity.  Additionally, and this was even more obvious after Jonathan Kent’s fluently-executed Copenhagen Holländer yesterday, the stagecraft felt clunky.  I missed the big coup de théâtre at the very end because the eye was drawn to other things happening on the stage.  At one point, in a seemingly desperate attempt to breathe some dramatic life into the Act 1 Pollione-Adalgisa duet, Joseph Calleja was directed to indulge in some gratuitous furniture abuse.  The show certainly looked good but overall I felt that it lacked in life and fully rounded characters.

Sonya Yoncheva & Joseph Calleja © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016
Sonya Yoncheva & Joseph Calleja © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016

If Sonya Yoncheva was daunted by the inevitable carping by the usual suspects of her not being a certain Hellenic soprano then she didn’t seem to be.  She sang with great authority commanding the stage vocally and giving everything she had and more.  To my ears, her Norma is a work in progress.  There are already many good things – the portamenti were nicely done and her diction was excellent.  The voice is also a good size and carries well.  She doesn’t yet have the ability to float phrases on the breath and some of her tuning, especially in the duets, wasn’t always easy on the ear.  There are some worrying signs of registers parting company and some discolouration at the top.  There’s a lot to admire there already and she has a lot of potential.  I do hope that Yoncheva will put the role to one side after the run and return to it in a few years time.  As a role debut it was certainly creditable but it seemed to me that there is still some work to be done.

Sonya Yoncheva © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016
Sonya Yoncheva © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016

Sonia Ganassi’s willingness to breathe dramatic life into her character was certainly much appreciated.  The voice however is showing signs of wear – registers were not especially integrated and the role now sounds a little on the high side.  That said, I very much enjoyed the generosity of her singing and her use of the text gave much pleasure.  Similarly, Joseph Calleja is the owner of one of the most beautiful tenor voices around.  He didn’t sound completely comfortable with his big Act 1 set piece but rallied in the second act to produce some wonderfully honeyed singing in the closing duet.  Brindley Sherratt sounded like he may have been suffering from an indisposition, the voice lacking in resonance and dry at the top.  The remaining roles were adequately taken.

Joseph Calleja & Sonya Yoncheva © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016
Joseph Calleja & Sonya Yoncheva © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016

Antonio Pappano certainly started vigorously enough with an overture that ran its course nicely.  In ‘casta diva’ the phrasing from the band was lumpy and there were several tempo disagreements in that number between Yoncheva, the pit and within the band itself.  Later, it felt that Pappano let the tension sag far too much in the closing pages – very few conductors have successfully negotiated them in my experience – and it felt that it could all have done with a bit more forward momentum.  The strings had their moments of sour intonation but otherwise the orchestral playing and choral singing were adequate, the chorus sounding a lot more solid of tone than they often do.  Ornamentation was noticeable by being almost completely absent – I wish that there had been so much more of it.

Sonya Yoncheva & the Royal Opera Chorus © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016
Sonya Yoncheva & the Royal Opera Chorus © ROH/Bill Cooper 2016

The show was given a tremendous reception by the public who clearly adored it although in a depressingly familiar routine, the usual suspects once again booed the production team.  I found nothing offensive in the production though ultimately it felt unfinished and with a distinct lack of flesh and blood characters.  Ultimately, that is the overriding impression I left the show with – a work in progress, both in the singing and in the direction.  It will be certainly interesting to see how it develops over the course of the run.

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