Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Royal Opera House's 2016 production of Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma" (1831): A Review

Sonya Yoncheva: one of the most astonishing stage
presences you can possibly imagine.
"Salvation and damnation are the same thing". - Stephen King

First produced on Boxing Day 1831, Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)'s two-act opera Norma was based on the now-rather-forgotten play Norma, ou l'infanticide by French poet Alexandre Soumet (1786-1845); the opera is regarded as the pinnacle of the Italian bel canto genre, a term which - as far as this non-musicologist can make out - refers to a particular 18th/19th century variety of rather florid, flamboyant, embroidered singing, particularly noted for the vivid expression of emotion it allows female vocalists. Though it wasn't a smash hit on that opening night, Norma has only grown in popularity over the decades (Verdi, Liszt, Chopin, and Wagner were all massive fans), and is still regularly performed. It has more than a whiff of Greek tragedy about it, set though it is far later, during the Roman occupation of Gaul (this did not escape the little part of me that loved Astérix et Obélix as a child), and involving, in Wagner's words, a "wild Gaelic prophetess". In this production, it is relocated to something akin to Franco's Spain - but more on that later.

Norma herself, high priestess of a Gaulish tribe, a woman who commands immense respect from her kindred, hides a guilty secret: her waning relationship with, and two children by, the Roman procunsul Pollione. Because it's written by an Italian, there's obviously a love triangle involved: Pollione has of late fallen for a younger, more virginal priestess, Adalgisa, which doesn't exactly endear him to his former lover. The opera unfolds madly, dazzlingly, as we experience Norma struggling to retain a coherent place in the world she lives in. The role is known as one of the most technically difficult roles in the soprano repertoire, not just for its stunning vocal range but the vivid span of emotions the character experiences throughout the opera. A German soprano once said she'd find it less stressful playing all three Brünnhilde roles in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in one evening than playing Norma. No wonder; the character is an absolutely extraordinary one, and requires a phenomenal soprano to successfully pull off those vocal fireworks. There is a genuine case that Norma is a kind of female Hamlet: we can all relate to the way she is torn between two worlds, her soul divided between duty to her religion and her tribe and the man she both loves and detests. We can all relate to the agony of indecision, and the parts of ourselves that bring us very close to one form of action and then pull us back from the edge. On several occasions, like Hamlet with Claudius, Norma stands above other characters with a knife, convinced she must act, and yet finds herself unable to take the plunge. And yet she must also be played with utter calm in those moments - like Act I's "casta diva", ironic prayer to a "chaste goddess" - where she must be the imperious religious leader. She must rouse her tribe for battle, sympathize with the deceived Adalgisa and come very close to killing her own children. This is a role like no other.

Fortunately, Sonya Yoncheva is a soprano like no other. The Bulgarian-born opera singer is absolutely magnificent in this, the Royal Opera House's first production of Norma in almost thirty years. From her grandiloquent first appearance as high priestess, all robed and gilded, to "Dormono entrambi", where the knife hovers above her daughter, Yoncheva is in complete command of the role, and never less than superb. She's ably complemented by Sonia Ganassi as Adalgisa - and, indeed, the duet the two share is perhaps my personal high-point of this play. Adalgisa comes to Norma for advice, in distress and despair about her feelings for an enemy soldier; Norma listens on the other side of a confessional, agony and sympathy written all over her face. As Adalgisa's swooping vocals build with her own self-loathing, Yoncheva masterfully conveys Norma's own fond memories of first meeting Pollione, her pity on the poor young woman destined to repeat her misfortune, and her need to console her to take the decision to run away with him which she was unable to take. Over all of this, naturally, hangs the shadow that the two women are thinking of the same man, and when Norma realises this, Yoncheva is utterly electric. So, too, is her duet with Joseph Calleja as Pollione, also a fine performer; the way it builds to the opera's final twist of the knife is heartbreaking.

Lastly, I must praise director Àlex Ollé, of the Catalan collective La Fura dels Baus; what he has done with Norma is render it contemporary while retaining its wild, prehistoric fervour. It's very important in matching production with director that the director has some kind of personal relationship with the piece, feels like they have something new to say about it, and my word is that true of Ollé: a man raised in the shadow of Catholic Spain, a cruel civil war hanging over his nation, a world where the conflict between desire and society is everywhere, a world where church and army seem the same thing. His production is intense and visceral, with the startling iconography of Catholicism - its familiar interplay of black and white, red and gold, shadow and light. Let us be "unclouded and unveiled", Norma intones, as the oppressive incense clouds the stage and the psychological interiority of the characters. White and red Ku Klux Klan style robes are everywhere: the authoritarianism of this religion is rendered truly sinister. Ably complementing this is the stunning set design, a vast and tightly woven lattice of large, interlocking crucifixes, and capable of taking on different aspects depending on how it's lit: sometimes it looks like a dark wood a la Dante, sometimes a huge wall of skeletons, sometimes a Jungian visualization of the lead character's interior suffering, the way that Catholicism emphasizes suffering, keeps her entrapped and entombed. It is a true crown of thorns: horrifying and beautiful. It is the most incredible set I have seen for a long time, rendering Norma what Wagner once called it: "a spiritual painting".

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