BELLINI Norma (Pappano)
This was the production that should have marked Anna Netrebko’s role debut as Bellini’s turbulent priestess. Instead the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva made her first attempt at it in a season opener at Covent Garden. Netrebko later justified withdrawing from this 2016 staging on account of the ‘uninteresting’ title-role. It is an unfairly bald judgement but it recognises that despite presenting us with a heroine as protector, prophet, lover, mother, warrior and victim, Bellini and his librettist are spinning so many plates that the soprano herself is virtually juggling an entire dinner service. Paradoxically, despite Norma’s multifaceted qualities, it can feel by the opera’s close that we still barely know who she is.
Àlex Ollé frames his answer to this question in monumental terms. The Catalan director fixates on the crushing nature of fundamentalist religion, which he envisages as a kind of Francoist cult for whom Norma toils. He shrouds the action in a gothically abstract design (sets by Alfons Flores) of countless crucifixes popping out of the gloom (nifty lighting from Marco Filibeck).
It’s grandly conceived but doesn’t come into focus. If Yoncheva’s trousered vicar is part of an oppressed nation, they are armed to the teeth and remarkably well organised. Where Joseph Calleja’s suited Pollione fits into this scenario is left opaque, and the injection of mundane modernity into the home life of Norma (her children watch Watership Down on TV) is jarring. The suggestion is that this ‘9 to 5’ Norma does her priestly business only under duress, but this muddies motivations more than it enlivens them. Key confrontations are not staged with enough crackle and the fiery denouement is undercooked.
Contending with this confusing premise, Yoncheva is fearless although not flawless. ‘Tremi tu’, she snarls at Calleja’s Pollione (‘do you tremble at me’) and he doesn’t, really, and nor do you, for she lacks a grandezza that Ollé has done his best to erode. Her ‘Casta Diva’, delivered as a wistful daydream of lost love, convinces, and Yoncheva’s seductive tone is consistently beguiling. She vaults every bel canto hurdle and even if she sets some of them clattering, it is less these imperfections than Yoncheva’s generalised characterisation that leaves you frustrated. Plenty of time left for her to fix that.
Conducting, Antonio Pappano is in typically robust form. In the theatre there were balance issues between pit and stage; these have been resolved on this recording and you can admire how orchestra and chorus capture a heady, even cloying quality to Bellini’s rapt score. Often it’s not the future echo of Verdi you hear but of numinous ensembles from Wagner’s Tannhäuser or even Parsifal.
Calleja is in good voice, a generous and graceful singer who generates genuine pathos. It is a pity that the normally reliable bass Brindley Sherratt is out of sorts as Oroveso, but more troubling casting is Sonia Ganassi’s over-ripe Adalgisa – her gargly tone far from ideal. Nonetheless she duets with Yoncheva with ardour, evidence of the reverence for the score that she talks about on a short ‘behind the scenes’ documentary included on the disc.