The opening of the new season in my opera calendar was marked by a trip to London, and I had high expectations for the new production of Norma, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano and performed by star duo of Sonya Yoncheva and Joseph Calleja. The expectations were overachieved both by brilliant musical interpretation as well as innovative, multilayered set design and direction by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus.
It has been 30 years since The Royal Opera staged Norma, and there is certain perception that it is one of the masterpieces which requires outstanding cast and expectations of the audience soar high for upcoming performance.
The impression from performance seen in London lasts till now even after listening to Norma performed by various outstanding casts – and fully understanding the Yoncheva performed her second performance on stage, her portrayal will be getting new depths with each next performance and unquestionably there is the best Norma of our generation born – and I am very happy being witness of the becoming.
The stage design consists of more than 1200 crucifixes moving to enclose and to release, creating enchanted forest and tunnel of light and hope, as well as descending over the crowd as a crown of thorns. The lighting is one of the main artistic tools to create sacred or mystique as well as threatening atmosphere on the stage. The only misfit scene of domesticated Norma with children, which probably was intended to demonstrate the stark contrast with ceremonial and public spheres of Norma’s life, disrupted storyline and made part of the audience laugh.
The most awaited aria “Casta Diva”, Norma’s Act I hymn to the chaste moon, delivered by Yoncheva from a platform above with the censer swinging across the stage, was sung beautifully, unfortunately, a well-intended rhythm of the censer was distracting the audience from the vocal performance.
Yoncheva demonstrated both her vocal mastery and dramatic potential, her soprano easily soaring above the orchestra and none of the top notes ever hinted an effort – beautiful sound, properly controlled and intelligently accentuating text through use of pianissimi or full force.
The confrontation of private and public lives and secrets to be exposed, Norma becomes fierce lioness, capable of eradicating her own children. Yoncheva delivers fierceness and fragility, anger and deception mixed with love and grief, and transforms her heroine through the opera both dramatically and vocally.
Joseph Calleja as Pollione, Sonya Yoncheva as Norma. Photo by Bill Cooper.
Joseph Calleja as Pollione delivered love-thorn, but probably also complacent character, with his nondescript grey outfit capable of blending into any crowd, and his coward plan of abandoning Norma and their children is exposed by chance and naivete of Adalgisa. Joseph Calleja has superb clear and mellow tone and the seeming ease of delivery convinces that Pollione is one of the roles to stay in his repertoire.
Unfortunately, Sonia Ganassi as Adalgisa seems miscast since she certainly is not either looking or sounding as a younger woman compared to Norma and her tone, plush and warm in the lower register, becomes wiry and strained at the top. She does well in duets with Norma, as well as Pollione, but dramatic credibility is missing for a particular performance.
The finale is unexpected, and grips the audience by surprise, – but it has to be kept as a secret until you have a chance to see it yourself. This is one of the season hits that have to be seen either live or in cinema. Highly recommended!
Music Vincenzo Bellini
Libretto Felice Romani
Director Àlex Ollé
Associate director Valentina Carrasco
Set designer Alfons Flores
Costume designer Lluc Castells
Lighting designer Marco Filibeck
Conductor Antonio Pappano
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