Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece Norma had its premiere at La Scala, Milan, on Boxing Day 1831. After a muted initial response, the opera quickly became popular, and is now a mainstay of the repertory, being particularly acclaimed as a vehicle for the lead soprano.
The priestess Norma (Sonya Yoncheva) loves Pollione (Joseph Calleja), leader of the occupying force suppressing her people, and has secretly borne two children by him. But Pollione’s love for Norma has withered, and he now loves her fellow priestess Adalgisa (Sonia Ganassi). Meanwhile, the people urgently look to Norma to lead their rebellion. Norma discovers the love between Pollione and Adalgisa. Furiously she gives the signal for war. Pollione is captured, attempting to steal away with Adalgisa. Norma, called upon to announce a sacrificial victim to consecrate the uprising, declares it shall be a guilty priestess: but which one?
In this production, director Àlex Ollé has reimagined this tragedy of love and betrayal in a more contemporary setting focusing on the conflict between an individual’s desires and those of society, and of religion as a force for both unity and destruction. Norma is now the spiritual leader of a paramilitary Catholic sect with Pollione a neo-liberal politician and naïve Adalgisa is an altar girl. The dark set by Alfons Flores is literally swamped with crucifixes – 1200 apparently – in a suggestion of a living purgatory; with costumes from Lluc Castells oscillating between the Spanish Inquisition, the Klu Klux Klan, and occasional nods towards Harry Potter it was more of a living hell. In contrast, dog-collar wearing Norma’s flat has been filled with more modern iconography which doesn’t make much sense at all: on these production values alone it’s easy to understand why the premiere was booed.
But ultimately opera is about the music and with this one of the greatest of all bel canto operas, thankfully the cast are exceptionally strong so musically at least it is an all-round triumph. Yoncheva – a late replacement – sings with magnificent authority throughout. Bellini has provided some astonishing vocal fireworks – ‘Casta diva’, Norma’s Act I hymn to the chaste moon, and Act II’s ‘Dormono entrambi’ as she contemplates the unthinkable act of killing her children – and both flow out of Yoncheva beautifully. But the opera’s dramatic potency rests in its breath-taking ensembles, most strikingly in Yoncheva’s duets with Calleja and Ganassi, the Act I trio ‘Vanne, sì: mi lascia, indegno’ and the blistering Act II finale.
Calleja provides a warm tone and a sympathetic Pollione despite being the love rat of the piece whilst Ganassi offers a touching portrayal of Adalgisa and blending well with Yoncheva in their duet ‘Mira, o Norma’. Antonio Pappano conducts the orchestra with his usual flair and passion, and they respond in kind with a glorious performance which occasionally overwhelms the singers.
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 18th October 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★