Yoncheva’s “Norma” a Mixed Bag

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BELLINI: Norma / Sonya Yoncheva, sop (Norma); Sonia Ganassi, mezzo (Adalgisa); Joseph Calleja, ten (Pollione); Brindley Sherratt, bass (Oroveso); David Junghoon Kim, ten (Flavio); Vlada Borovko, mezzo (Clotilde); Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Antonio Pappano, cond; Àlex Ollé, dir / Opus Arte DVD OA 1247D (also available as a Blu-Ray DVD)

If my readers wonder why I’ve never reviewed an opera DVD before on my blog, I’ll tell you. It’s for two reasons. First, and probably most importantly, most of them coming out nowadays are only available as Blu-Ray discs, and I don’t own one of those stupid players. For one thing, they’re just a gimmick, and for another, they’re too expensive for someone like me who lives on Social Security. But secondly, it’s because modern opera productions are so freaking ugly, perverted and unrelated to what the opera is supposed to represent that I take one look at the covers and don’t even bother asking for them.

This one, however, didn’t look too bad—a rarity, even for the Royal Opera House nowadays—so I decided to take a chance on it. Another reason I chose to review it was that the cast choices were obviously geared towards a more appropriate and authentic cast for the era in which the opera first appeared (1831). None of the three principals, Yoncheva, Calleja or Ganassi, have cannon-sized voices, which is pretty much what we had singing Norma throughout most of the 20th century (Maria Callas’ modest-sized lyric voice being a rare exception). Unfortunately, we became so used to such Normas as Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna and Cristina Deutkeom, Polliones like Mario del Monaco, Robleto Merolla and Jon Vickers, and Adalgisas like Giulietta Simionato that people began to expect the big voices and the similarly huge orchestras that went with them. Now, I’m not averse to a really well-sung “big” Norma—one of my top recommendations in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music is the Deutekom-Troyanos-Merolla Norma from San Francisco in the 1970s—but once you’ve heard a smaller-scaled version like that of Cecilia Bartoli and Sumi Jo, the added intimacy of a small orchestra and voices makes a lot of sense.

In this production, we have some strangeness in the costuming, concocted by some idiot named Lluc Castrells who I think should be Castrellated, such as Oroveso dressed like the Dean of a University and the male chorus looking like acolytes at Midnight Christmas Mass at your local church (and a few inexplicably dressed like Army Generals, go figure), and way too many Christian crosses representing the pagan Druids, but compared to the average run of productions nowadays it at least passes muster. The booklet touts this production as representing “A Norma trapped by society’s norms,” with the following explaining some of the drivel you see:

Themes such as the fear of God, processions, ritual, celibacy, chastity and confession are woven from start to finish…Religion is the glue that holds society together, an unconscious way of ordering the known world, but it is also the means to repress anyone who dares deviate from the “norm.” This is religion as fanaticism, an intolerant,unbending law, a blind, intimidating and terrible instrument of power.

Well, I could name a religion other than Christianity that should have been used to represent this aesthetic, but even that would have been wrong. Just portray them as Druids. That’s what they are, not ersatz Christians.

Some guy they picked out of a police lineup, Brindley Sherratt, sings Oroveso with a stifled, forced and quite ugly bass voice, but thankfully the opening scene is his biggest exposure and we can move on from there. Pollione and Flavio appear dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods, which they then remove to reveal modern-day business suits. Like I said, unrelated to what the opera is supposed to represent. Ah, but who cares nowadays? Obviously there are Hipsters out there who love this crap or they wouldn’t keep doing it. Calleja is in excellent voice, firm and brilliant, as is the secondary tenor, Kim, as Flavio. But you would have thought that Calleja could at least have shaved his scruffy face before appearing before a paid audience, wouldn’t you? I would. But he does sing superbly; his tone has darkened a bit over the years, and his breath control is nothing short of phenomenal. Del Monaco and Merolla could never sing the role this well; they were all muscle and stress. And Pappano’s conducting is simply fabulous, taut yet lyrical, even more exciting than Giovanni Antonini on the Bartoli set. Calleja’s high notes are so perfectly placed that they sound as if they’re right in the middle of his voice. I only wish he wasn’t just singing to the audience and outstretching his arms so much. Couldn’t he at least have watched Vickers’ Pollione, even if he didn’t want to emulate the huge sound of Vickers’ voice? I did, however, question as to whether or not a lighting director was used. The stage is so dark that only a few candles provide what little light there is. Opera by candlelight…oh well, that does hark back to the early 19th century, all right. More Ku Kluc Klan figures show up to walk across the stage, this time wearing black hoods with their white robes. Must be a Democratic Convention (look it up on Google, boys & girls, under the title “Klanbake,” the 1924 Democratic Convention).

But then Yoncheva begins singing, and acting, and all the folderol of this production falls away. This is a GREAT Norma voice, strong and bold, and interestingly she has a bit of Maria Callas’ smoldering sulfur sound in her timbre. And she is a great actress, her facial expressions matching her body language to perfection. Unfortunately, there’s too much motion on the stage just as “Casta diva” starts…Dancin’ Druids in the background, their arms outstretched and veils over their faces, who happily stop moving once the aria proper begins. Yoncheva never really achieves a real piano tone during the aria, though she does sing somewhat softly, but with phrasing and interpretation this good, who cares? She’s got the character down pat, as did Deutekom who was a LOUSY actress (physically, not vocally). The great Lilli Lehmann (not Lotte) once said that Norma was harder to sing than all three Brünnhildes, and she was right. It calls for almost ungoldly breath control in addition to dramatic fire plus coloratura technique, and Yoncheva has all of that. Not to say hers is a Brünnhilde voice by any means, but for this opera it’s perfect. Not surprisingly, the audience goes berserk, applauding between the aria and the cabaletta, but I don’t blame them. You just don’t hear singing like this often enough nowadays. Her sustained phrasing in “Bello a me ritorna” is absolutely mind-boggling, no joke. You have to hear it to believe it. And she sings variations in the second verse, simple, tasteful variations, with absolute ease. What’s more, it’s interesting to hear a Norma whose voice not only has all the requisite qualities for the role but who also sounds relatively youthful. Deutekom was great in 1975, but sounded mature.

During the orchestral interlude following the cabaletta, Ganassi snuffs out the candles on stage, leaving us in total darkness. Maybe this lighting director was impressed by Herbert von Karajan. When she starts singing, one is underwhelmed to say the least. Her voice is all wobble and flutter; there is no central core to it. Oh God, I hope she warms up before her big scenes. PLEASE let her warm up! But at least she’s a good stage actress, which helps a little bit, though Calleja literally sings her off the stage in their ensuing duet (with a little light coming down from stage right over Calleja’s shoulder, through a group of Christian crosses). When Norma reappears, she’s dressed like an altar boy with rosary beads wrapped around her right hand. Pollione, on the other hand, just keeps going in his gray business suit. Ganassi never really warms up her flawed voice, but is a shade better by the time of the dramatic trio near the end of Act 1. Fortunately, the other two are so rock-solid that they mask her deficiencies.

Act 2 begins with a modern-day apartment setting. Stark, square, stylized modern furniture, including a “bed” that I first thought was a space-aged sofa, a huge red exercise ball with a grinning cow face on it, a table lamp and a small plasma screen that moves somewhere at stage right. Who designed this scene? Is this Druid chic? Later on, while Norma sings with a huge knife in her hand, the picture on the screen changes to cartoon bunny rabbits and we see a boxed Monopoly game on the table behind her. Symbolism, folks, symbolism! In their long duet Yoncheva is superb, Ganassi close to awful. During the cabaletta to their duet, Norma is hugging one child close to her while another, oblivious that Mom and someone else are singing, is playing with blocks. Later, the same kid bounces on the exercise ball in rhythm with the music. The next scene has bodies and Christian crosses swathed in a dark blue light, with ten or twelve of them holding their arms up as if being crucified. Then they all start singing softly, even the crucified ones. Shades of Life of Brian!

Then the College Dean (Oroveso), now dressed like Fearless Leader, appears with two Generals to announce the war. Oddly, however, our intrepid director seems to have run out of nutty ideas, because nothing much changes after this. The stage remains very dark with just a little bluish light, the principals sing in front of all the crosses and crucifixes, Oroveso remains donned as Fearless Leader, and they just sort of block their movements (with Yoncheva doing the lion’s share of the acting) and finish singing the opera as a giant cross, in fake orange flames, burns in the background. The perfect Christmas gift for your Christian friends.

So there you have it. Yoncheva, Calleja and Pappano, all excellent. Sherratt crummy to start with, but he warms up a bit. Ganassi bad from start to finish, and the production quirky, overly busy and offensive to Christians. Stage lighting, In Darkness Let Me Dwell. I give it a B-. Better than most Normas out there on DVD, but caveat emptor.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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