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Norma review at the Royal Opera House, London – ‘Sonya Yoncheva is remarkable’

A scene from Norma at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton A scene from Norma at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It’s been 30 years since the Royal Opera last presented a fully-staged Norma, and sadly this new production by Alex Olle of the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus isn’t what we’ve been waiting for.

Bellini’s bel canto opera concerns the conflict between two ancient peoples with different religions: the Gauls – led by their high priest Oroveso and his daughter Norma, and their Roman occupiers – led by their proconsul Pollione, by whom Norma secretly has two children, but who at the beginning of the opera has transferred his affections to Adalgisa, a younger Druid priestess.

Enclosed in designer Alfons Flores’s huge metallic set comprising innumerable grey crucifixes, Olle’s lifeless staging is set (as he puts it) amongst ‘today’s religion, today’s militarism, today’s political elite’. Yet perversely only one group – resembling some sort of right-wing Catholic militia, only with female priests – seems to represent both sides simultaneously, removing the crucial element of external conflict that makes Norma’s betrayal of her people and her religion unforgivable. The entire meaning of the piece falls apart.

There are some vocal compensations, especially in the bold attempt on the notoriously demanding title-role from the young Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who bravely replaced Anna Netrebko when she withdrew in April. She sings with consistent skill and impressive technical assurance in an altogether remarkable first shot at a role to which she will surely add the necessary dramatic definition as she develops it.

By her side, Sonia Ganassi’s Adalgisa is little more than respectably solid, while Joseph Calleja brings some flair and panache to Pollione. As Oroveso, Brindley Sherratt’s vocalism has too many rough edges.
Antonio Pappano conducts a performance that could do with more momentum. There’s a mixture of booing and cheering for the production team at the curtain, on a ratio of about 50/50.

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While the production is mixed, Sonya Yoncheva’s Norma is remarkable