Sonya Yoncheva in Àlex Ollé's Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper

Sonya Yoncheva in Àlex Ollé’s Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper

It’s been a while since I was at the Royal Opera House (that’s two months actually,) and this time round I was coming back to see Bellini’s bel canto fantasy world where religion, chastity, and loyalty just isn’t enough. After Alex Ollé’s (of La Fura dels Baus) production was first announced to the public, its signed-off soprano, Anna Netrebko bailed out where Sonya Yoncheva came in. And may I add, this isn’t the first time this has happened. It was this Spring at the Covent Garden that she was her replacement in La bohème, where she provided a worthy Mimì- encouraging tears and tissue hugging from most members of the audience.

Sonya Yoncheva is gaining a strong fan base, and her presence on the stage is enough to warrant grabbing a ticket to any of her performances. For a soprano role as tough as Norma, let alone La bohème, or La Traviata, she has truly proven her mettle. The strongest highlight of the show and one that shall stick in my memory is her interpretation of Casta Diva. Yes, once used in a Jean Paul Gautier TV commercial, this aria was popularly known in the 19th century as well. It is a spectacular one that relies on a simple melody with the symbolism of purity and holiness engraved into the character of Norma. Yoncheva achieves lightness and softness of tone, compared to other voices such as Maria Callas and this year’s lead, Marjorie Owens at the English National Opera, who sang with more fire and gusto, equally enjoyable nonetheless.

Norma is a Druid priestess who finds herself in a struggle; amongst her people who seek a rebellion and the clandestine relationship she has with an officer in the forces occupying her land, Pollione. The drama lies in a secret. Although she is meant to be chaste as priestess she bears two children with Pollione, which no one knows about until Adalgisa, the priestess at the temple of Irminsul, informs her of her own infidelity.

Cast of Norma, Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra with maestro Pappano.

Cast of Norma, Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra with maestro Pappano.

There is even reference to infanticide in Bellini’s last bel canto opera, which was inspired by French poet Alexandre Somet. Ollé places Norma’s world into a contemporary setting where religion is solid as governing a country. Spanish priests, with traditional robes often confused with the ku klux klan, mill around the stage, which is a rare sight – hundreds of religious crosses stacked together emphasizing the religious influence and its omnipresence. However, this seemed overbearing at times when audiences could have comfortably understood where they were in the storyline had the scene been less crowded.

The first hour and a half is the long haul with no interval, which was slow on direction and staging. Yet superior voices from Joseph Calleja, Yoncheva, Brindley Sherratt and Sonia Ganassi, alongside superb music performed by the ROH orchestra under the ruthless baton of Antonio Pappano had me nicely nestled in my seat. Yoncheva’s duets with Ganassi and Calleja are a pleasure to listen to as they sweetly complemented Bellini’s lush score.

The second half is a complete game changer, however. It was as if I was watching an entirely different opera, visually. The stacks of crosses were gone and a modern-day living room with children’s cartoon playing on a flat screen TV, a toy train crashing and a space-hopping child energetically bouncing to the beat of Bellini’s score came together to a climactic duet between the two priestesses. The pace also quickened with both Pollione and Norma sentenced to death. There’s also an unexpected bang at the end that certainly converted some parts of my view of this production. Sadly not all.

Brindley Sherratt as Oroveso, Sonya Yoncheva as Norma and Joseph Calleja as Pollione in Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper.

Brindley Sherratt as Oroveso, Sonya Yoncheva as Norma and Joseph Calleja as Pollione in Norma, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper.

★★★

This production of Norma ends this Saturday 8th October. Click here for more information or call up the box office for returns. The Covent Garden (ROH) are also showing Cosi fan tutte and The Barber of Seville, and many other operas and ballets. Click here to find out more. 

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