For the last two Saturdays I have trekked to London to see Bellini’s Norma at the Royal Opera; the first round was a bit of a lucky windfall – a friend, who had the tickets, couldn’t go and so I got to go and have a proper outing; museums and shopping, and drinks on the rooftop terrace before show. It was all lovely, even if I ended up too drunk on some excellent English sparkling wine to really form a coherent idea of the performance itself. So, back I went on my earlier-booked ticket to a Saturday matinee, and mighty glad I am that I did.
I have waited an eternity to see Norma, ever since I first heard someone, probably Maria Callas, sing Casta Diva on the radio. It has been one of those operas that doesn’t get a lot of play these days; the last ROH Norma was 30 years ago (according to my calculations that must have been Montserrat Caballe, who in that production caught the eye of Freddie Mercury with some memorable results). It is a tricky opera to stage, I suppose – the story is set in the Celtic Gaul, using the conflict between the Roman invaders and the local Druid resistance as the backdrop for its end-of-love story, which is exactly the sort of historical context directors don’t seem too keen on (more of that later), and requires three very strong singers. Especially Norma herself is a big sing, requiring a rather special sort of voice and flawless technique to carry it through; I could be wrong but in sheer numbers of notes, it must also be a very long one – though Casta Diva is the most famous, it is only one of several arias and duets for her to get through, all the way to the end, requiring endurance and planning from the start.
ROH had originally cast Anna Netrebko as Norma, but she pulled out already before the booking opened and was replaced by the Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva; quite a few of my fellow opera-goers felt that it was a substitution for the better, and I cannot disagree. Yoncheva is at 35 relatively young to be singing this (Caballe would have been in her 50s I think; Sondra Radvanovsky, who appears to be the top Norma at the moment in her 40s) and she wasn’t always entirely effortless – the top notes didn’t always float, and there was an audible change in vocal quality between the two performances I saw. This was a long run, and it’s entirely possible that she was tired by the last performance, it being the third on that week alone. Still, her Casta Diva packed an emotional punch (the audience last Saturday were so immersed in the listening they forgot to applaud), and the second act scene, where Norma intends to kill her children but cannot do it, made me tear up. When her voice was at its best, it was a beautiful one, and she had a powerful presence on the stage.
Adalgisa was sung by the Italian mezzo Sonia Ganassi, and Pollione by the Maltese Tenor (that’s his twitter handle) Joseph Calleja. Ganassi was fine during the first performance I saw, but when after the interval during the second a ROH rep came to the stage before the curtain went up I knew the announcement would be about her – we were told that she was suffering from a throat infection, but had decided to soldier on regardless, and actually did a fairly good job of Mira, O Norma. Calleja was obviously the big-star attraction, and was great first time around and fantastic the second. His voice is what the love child that Pavarotti and Carreras’ voices would have – effortlessly big, light and bright, but with a pleasant timber and enough darkness to make him believable in the role. Antonio Pappano conducted, and as usually, I cannot find fault in him. Norma can be static, but he kept it rolling with all the usual spirit, style and enthusiasm.
Norma is in essentials a drama about a divorce that goes hideously bad – Norma and Pollione have been together for a long time, have two children, and he’s grown a bit tired of her. He has fallen for Adalgisa, and wants to pursue a relationship with her. The kicker? Both Norma and Adalgisa are, as priestesses, sworn to chastity. The second kicker? Pollione is a much hated Roman pro-consul and the enemy of their people. The love between Norma and Pollione is thus twice forbidden and the consequences for both, should they be caught, dire. When Pollione abandons Norma for Adalgisa (who is torn between her religious calling, her love for Norma and her desire for him), she unravels horribly. Already conflicted by motherhood – she loves her children but loathes the betrayal of her priestly wows they represent – she considers killing her children as revenge for him, but as she picks up the knife to stab them, she is horrified by herself, and from there on does everything to protect them. Pollione is caught breaking into the druid temple to steal away Adalgisa, and again Norma finds herself unable to harm the innocent party – she asks Pollione to give up Adalgisa in exchange of his life (and that of his children), but when he refuses she confesses to her own crime to spare her. Norma accepts her own punishment, but begs her children to be saved. In the last minute, Pollione has a change of heart and he chooses to die with her.
This production was directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus, whose Oedipe I loved in the summer. This is a visually striking production, again theatre on a grand scale, but the idea (no doubt stemming from Ollé’s upbringing in Franco-era Spain) just doesn’t work. He has transferred the action to the modern day, making Norma a priest and Adalgisa her altar servant, while the druids are both religious types and soldiers. It is impossible to tell what Pollione is supposed to be/represent in this scenario, but that is only one of the jarring details. The religion here is sort of high end Catholicism, all red hoods and crucifixes and incense, presumably the oppressive, totalitarian government represented by the soldiers using religion to rule its citizens. Yet the internal logic doesn’t work. A woman priest in this particular religious context is simply too incredible, and somehow Ollé’s theme – desire in conflict with fundamentalism – doesn’t become clear or realised. While the set, essentially a cage made of crucifixes, works in the first act, the lighting wonderfully creating an illusion of a huge, cavernous interior of a cathedral, it becomes a bit silly (and a bit too underlined) in the second act when the action is transferred to Norma’s flat where her children are playing with modern toys. There’s visual clutter – Watership Down plays on the TV, and during the big duet Norma and Adalgisa compete for attention with the little girl hopping around the stage on an orange space hopper. Ollé has also slightly changed the ending – rather than allow Norma to burn alive, Oroveso grabs her and shoots her, and then – horrified – embraces her dead body while the flames of the pyre (a cross-shaped video screen) grow high. This is a production that manages to be both pointless and shallow on one hand, and unforgettably grand on the other, which I guess is not a mean feat in itself. During my second performance, I soon realised that having seen it once I could ignore it and focus on the music, which made the experience rather more wonderful.
A browse around the interwebs revealed that Norma is one of those operas that are confusing to directors. The styles range from “vaguely Grecian” (nevermind that the actual location is somewhere around Bretagne/Normandy) to period-generic to Games of Thrones to space opera to (by the look of it) Soviet gulag, directors either going for bonkers or for contemporary-conflict-zone-parallel, I guess emphasising either Norma’s internal conflict as a mother and a rejected spouse, or her position as a priestess and spiritual leader of a people in a political, violent conflict.
My friend found the whole idea of “modernising” this opera a bit silly, and the thought that modern-day audience might not understand the very human drama of Norma unless it was brought to some contemporary setting, condescending. It is much debated – on Facebook there’s a group called “Against modern opera productions” but I also know lots of people who make a sort of sport of mocking the fuddyduddies who insist that a modern staging of a 19th century opera ruins everything. I am myself of two minds – it bothers me when a production is so much about the director’s idea of what the work is about that it fights the libretto (like the Warsaw ghetto Nabucco), or when the internal logic of the production makes no sense (ROH’s Ariadne auf Naxos), but I also like a good, fresh resetting if it makes sense in the context of the opera. A good example would be the Welsh National Opera production of I Puritani I saw last year that was set in the 1970s Irish troubles; a modern parallel that worked perfectly with the libretto’s framing conflict of Catholics and protestants. I also love the famous Salzburg Festspiele La Traviata, that of minimalist sets and the giant clock mercilessly ticking away Violetta’s short time as the demi-monde It girl. The “period accurate” productions that I haven’t liked all seem to have shared the same flaws – they are unimaginative, dull and lacking depth, often with a sort of visual trivia making up for the lack of substance, feeling like the director instead of misunderstanding the piece, or trying to make it into what they think it should be about, has simply given up any effort at all.
So, why mad-ish autumn of opera? Well, to come: two performances of Alban Berg’s Lulu at the ENO (with Brenda Rae in the title role and Sarah Connolly as her lover, Countess Geschwitz), and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (Sondra Radavanovsky!) at the ROH in November, with some Lied between now and then. And possibly WNO’s Macbeth later in October. Keep your eyes peeled.
Norma production photos are from the Royal Opera’s Flickr page. Collage photos from around the webs.