I don’t suppose even the Vatican stockpiles more crucifixes than you find in the Royal Opera’s new production of Bellini’s Norma. Hundreds if not thousands swarm around the stage like insects frozen in mid-flight. And they’re portentous. This will either be a super-spiritual show or super-critical of the oppressive powers of religion.
Unsurprisingly, it proves to be the latter; and there’s plenty in this staging – by the Catalan director Àlex Ollé – to disturb a thin-skinned Catholic. But at the same time, it’s the most compelling and successful staging of the piece I’ve ever seen.
Norma is easily a bore; and in the wrong hands it’s a downhill spiral after Casta diva, the big number (famously associated with Maria Callas), which comes all too soon during the first scene. Ollé’s hands, though, are the right ones, even if they risk offence.
As the libretto has it, Norma is the warrior-priestess of a druid order in the ancient past, outwardly hostile to the Roman army that has conquered and oppressed her tribe, but secretly in love with its commander. This is standard operatic passion-versus-duty. But because the Romans barely surface on the stage, they’re not so obvious a threat, and the dilemma doesn’t feel as agonising as it needs to. Druids, Romans, mystic chanting, mistletoe and togas … Do we care? Perhaps not.
Ollé, though, raises the stakes. Out go the togas, and the Druids turn into a modern Christian order, something like the Knights of Malta, with Norma as a 21st-century popess (although wearing a dog collar, she can’t help looking Anglican). As played by Sonya Yoncheva, the young Bulgarian soprano brought in at late notice to replace Anna Netrebko, she’s a fresh, bright, agile and entirely credible character, as opposed to the inert lump in a linen shift that Normas tend to be. And though you might complain that vocally she’s on the light side for a heavy role like this, Yoncheva is so wonderful you scarcely notice she’s out-sung, in terms of scale, by her Pollione: the beautifully big-voiced Joseph Calleja.
Calleja doesn’t act with spontaneity: you see him thinking, “this is where I sink onto my knees” or “this is where I throw the chair”. But it’s a glorious voice, unspoiled by anything except a slight bleat under pressure. And for an unfaithful lover, he’s surprisingly sympathetic, playing Pollione not as a marauding Roman, but as a broadly secular figure in a lounge suit, who represents freedom from the constraints of religious tyranny.
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