normaAntonio Pappano is a maestro extraordinaire and his conducting of “Norma” by Bellini at the Royal Opera House on October 4 was masterful.

The story of “Norma” is a bit complicated. It is an amalgam of romantic elements, religiosity, war, Greek tragedy à la Medea, choices and death. In other words hard to follow but with music that is enthralling.

The Gaul Priestess Norma has a love affair with Pollione, a Roman officer who is part of an occupying force. He has tired of Norma, though she looked perfectly adorable to me, and has taken up with an assistant Priestess, Adalgisa, who he is trying to convince to run away to Rome with him. Norma and Pollione have two little children together, so this seems churlish at the very least. Norma, of course, wants to take revenge on Pollione and Adalgisa when she discovers this betrayal and threatens to have them both put to death. By some quirk, call it the call of conscience, she decides against this course of action, admits her own guilty secret of out of wedlock children, and commits herself to the punishment of death by burning. Except in this staging her father, dressed as an Army officer, mercifully shoots her in the head. The production is set in contemporary society in which religion and political power have elided. Norma defies this powerful combination and represents the defence of individual freedom in a repressive society. At least that is what I think it was about. No matter.

All in all, Norma is a fabulous vehicle for sopranos who have mastered the beautiful long lines of the bel canto technique. The music is exquisite and proved an enormously successful career maker for none other than Maria Callas. The Bulgarian Soprano Sonya Yoncheva was in magnificent voice and most convincing as the beautiful Norma, torn by love and vengeance. Joseph Calleja sang his heart out as the duplicitous Pollione. Sonia Ganassi, as Adalgisa, had a cold, but like
any great professional she soldiered on and played the victim with pathos.

I have to say I was a bit confused by the set which consisted of hundreds of hanging crosses, and I wasn’t convinced by the Danish Modern bedroom cum playroom where the children hung out. But this is the grandest of grand operas and thus exists in a world of its own making.

Kaaren Hale

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