Two Normas

24 Sep

Three Normas, in fact, if you count the ENO one earlier this year.  I’ve been a fan of the opera for a while and been frustrated at the lack of performances it gets these days.  So I took a trip to Edinburgh to go to the Festival Theatre on 5th August, when Cecilia Bartoli appeared as Norma in the Salzburg production of that opera.  Then I saw the ROH’s new version on 16th September.  There’s no question which I preferred.

For me, the Bartoli production went straight into the top ten of great operatic performances that I’ve seen and provided the conviction that I’ve longed for that Norma is one of the great operatic masterpieces.

Let’s deal with the last point first.  Norma has always seemed to me to be interesting and worth seeing because of its plot: a conflict for a woman who has loved the leader of the occupying force, is spurned by him and has the opportunity to kill him.  As an adjunct the relationship with Adalgisa – of support rather than hatred – is really well done. It’s political and it’s personal.  And Bellini’s genius lies in his ability to provide the vocal music to express those conflicts, to manage the conversations between the characters.  And also to provide some of the most glorious melodies in opera.

My point is, however, that the genius of Norma doesn’t lie in the great melodies or the gorgeousness of the music, but in the declamation, the dramatic development of character and the situations: the dialogues between Norma and Adalgise, Adalgisa and Pollione and that glorious Norma/Pollione scene beginning In mia man alfin tu sei.  It’s in that outstanding scene for Norma at the beginning of Act II when she considers murdering her children.  This is dramatic, vocal writing of highest order and, when it’s done well makes you realise what an outstanding composer Bellini was, how tragic his death was and how far he exceeds Donizetti and influenced Verdi and Wagner.  It’s a riveting dramatic piece.

But it’s an unforgiving piece.  If you don’t have musicians with the understanding and ability to sing and play it and a director who is able to overcome the fact that druids look rather silly to us and to get the singers to act  and understand the roles, then the opera can seem tedious, even silly.  The triumph of this performance was that we had both musicians and directors who took the piece seriously and made it work as a piece of drama.

Patirce Caurier and Moshe Leiser set the piece in occupied France.  Pollione is Nazi governer, Norma the teacher at a school which becomes the headquarters of the resistance.  Maybe the supernatural and religious element gets lost slightly but that barely matters: the issue here is the resistance to occupiers not the significance of mistletoe.. Norma’s house has a kitchen table for her and Adelgisa to sit at for their heart to heart  It’s intimate and allows you to concentrate on the fact that these are people with emotions rather than mythic figures in silly costumes.

This is further accentuated by a period band – I barroccisti – in the pit and lighter voices that you usually associate with the work.  Gianluca Capuana – deputising for Diego Fasolis – take things pretty briskly on the whole, but also allowing space for the situations to breathe and develop: the dialogues between the characters for example.  The tempi felt unusual but never wrong and they clearly suited the band and the singers.  I thought the orchestral playing was excellent: attuned to the singers and to the emotions: lovely woodwind particularly at the beginning of the second act.

It’s all built around Bartoli and many critics will say that she has no business doing Norma: she’s not a soprano and the voice is too and then carp at the rest for being built round her.  Bartoli argues that this is going back to what Bellini would have expected: lighter voices, a soprano Adalgisa and so forth.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter given that the performance struck me as so convincing on its own terms.  Bartoli catches all the emotions: the anger, tenderness, conflicts and, ultimately, the heroism of the role.  She uses the words, colours them and makes you realise how marvellous Bellini’s writing is.  There’s an intensity and understanding about her acting that I’ve never come across in her before: the archness has gone and we have an honest, raw, highly emotional performance. I won’t easily forget her agony at the start of the second Act, the way she made her voice soft and gentle in the scene with Adalgisa and, at the end with Pollione: the perfect sustained piano at the end of Casta diva.  The coloratura works,  If you want a Norma with a huge barn-storming voice, this isn’t it – I don’t know how she would fare in the Royal Opera House with a huge modern band between her and the audience.  What I got was refined, delicate singing backed with real venom and anger when it was need.  The audience stood for her at the end and, for me, this was a performance to set beside Janet Baker’s Alceste, Anja Silja’s Kostelnicka and Emilia Marty and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Irene as among the great individual performances that I’ve seen.

We then had John Osborn as Pollione.  He created a very credible, nasty military governor and sang outstandingly well.  I don’t think I’d imagined the final duet being done so tenderly, so lovingly.  I’d not come across Rachel Olvera, the Adalgisa, before.  She has  very light soprano and looks right as the young, naïve priestess.  I thought she sang expressively, understanding the issues and matching Bartoli extremely well vocally.  She created a strong figure even if her singing was less memorable than Bartoli’s.  She could only get away with the role in a performance of this size and I suspect that her future lies in the baroque and Mozart rather than here.

Peter Kalman was a strong Oroveso, the chorus didn’t strike me as ideally confident but I suspect that the very low key Act II interlude for them was intended as exactly that: depressed, low key and dim.

This is a particular type of Norma. It won’t appeal to those who demand the vocal security of Sutherland and the soprano/mezzo contrast: those who think it’s as forerunner of Aida.  I don’t think it is and this intimate, intelligent, engrossing performance delighted me in showing me a side of Norma that I knew was there.  And the audience was with it: you felt the silence as they listened to the music, leaned forward to take in the intimate moments, laughed in the right way at the moment when Norma asks Adalgisa who her lover is and, again, when Pollione arrives.  This was opera as theatre and it was worth every inch of the journey to Edinburgh and every penny of the rail fare.

So the ROH production was going to have some problems keeping up with this and it wasn’t helped when Anna Netrebko decided that her voice was going in a different direction.  After her withdrawal from Marguerite, the ROH seems to be permanently slightly behind her vocal developments.  Faced with this, the company decided to take a punt on Sonya Yontcheva for the title role, notwithstanding the fact that she’s never sung it before and her cv (Marguerite, Violetta, Lucia, Alcina with Tatyana coming up) isn’t exactly classic preparation for a Norma.

It wasn’t a disaster.  The voice is large and has a steely edge at the bottom, not unlike Callas.  The problems struck me as being at the top, particularly during the runs in the first act, where you felt that the top notes were snatched, uncomfortable.  There was a nice legato for Casta diva but the cabaletta sounded ordinary.  It’s an impossible role, needing brilliance, flexibility, depth, fire – the sort of qualities that very few voices can match.  It also needs a feeling for the words and an ability to colour them that Yontcheva possess only patchily.  She doesn’t have, as yet, the sheer intensity that Bartoli brings and the concentration and integrity that triumphs over the odds.  Context is everything: it might have felt a lot better somewhere smaller but with a programme note reminding you of Callas and Sutherland in this house, you couldn’t avoid feeling that Yoncheva is not yet in this league.  There were fine moments: the recitative at the beginning of Act II was fine, the duet with Adalgisa was gorgeously done and the last scene with Pollione was musically very fine – even if she didn’t reach the depths that Bartoli managed.

Sonia Ganassi sounded a bit frayed as Adalgisa, the voice a bit tired.  She dueted very well with Yoncheva but seemed mature and I wished I’d heard her in this role ten years ago.  As Pollione Joseph Calleja sang mostly loudly and with none of the acting ability that John Osborn brought the role.  He sounded out of place with the other voices and the bleat in the voice still irritates me.  Brindley Sherratt was a strong Pollione.

The stars were Antonio Pappano and the orchestra.  This was entirely different from Edinburgh but equally valid.  The tempi felt right but what was most special was the way he managed the textures and the playing to keep the tension in the music and, again, make you realise what a masterpiece this opera is.  This was some of the finest big house bel canto conducting I’ve heard.  It’s wonderful that Pappano is at last beginning to take bel canto seriously here.  The chorus were on excellent form too.

Alex Olle’s production was about as far away from Edinburgh as it was possible to be.  Norma is the priestess of some extreme catholic sect (maybe not catholic since she’s a woman and, last time I looked, the catholics weren’t too hot on that) and he almost makes them the villain of the opera.  Certainly there’s almost nothing to suggest that Rome is an oppressive state or to bring out the political side of this opera.

It looks splendid – a forest of crucifixes, beautifully lit frames the stage – a one point some of them turn to make a crown of thorns.  You get a sense of the furtiveness of the rebels but it seems strange that their numbers include some very nattily dressed generals.  It’s set in contemporary dress.

There are irritations: I’m not sure why you needed a huge censer swinging during Casta diva – relegating Norma to the side of the stage.  I thought that the play area for the children with Watership Down on the DVD distracting and having one the children bounce around on a space hopper during the latter part of mira o Norma was just silly.  What irritated me most, however, was the sheer lack of direction of the singers.  For all the spectacular set and modern costumes, the movements were rarely any different from what you would expect in the most traditional production.  The communication, the sheer intelligence and humanity of the direction in the Caurier and Leiser production was completely missing.   Ms Yoncheva deserves better than this.

So a moderate, curate’s egg of an evening that didn’t do justice to the opera partly because of the production and partly because Ms Yoncheva simply didn’t strike me as ready to do the role in this theatre at these prices.

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