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Watch Antonio Pappano conduct Bellini’s Norma

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Norma (DVD)
Sonya Yoncheva, Joseph Calleja, Sonia Ganassi, Brindley Sherratt; Royal Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Antonio Pappano; dir. Álex Ollé (London, 2016)
BBC Opus Arte DVD: OA1247D; Blu-ray: OABD7225D

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First staged on 12 September 2016, the Royal Opera’s new Norma was the work of Spanish director Alex Ollé, one of the artistic co-directors of the theatre group La Fura dels Baus. In a programme note included with this DVD/Blu-ray release he asks the rhetorical questions, ‘Some will see [Norma] as a traitor to her country and her religion, but what is she really guilty of having done? Falling in love? Becoming a mother?’ How odd that he doesn’t mention that in her role as Druid high priestess she forbids her people – for purely personal reasons – to attack the Roman occupiers: a betrayal she certainly acknowledges.

But then we’re not in Roman Gaul, but in a setting that supposedly reflects ‘(today’s) religion, (today’s) militarism and (today’s) political elite’. The Druidic faith becomes some sort of militaristic Catholic cult (is this a reference to Opus Dei?), whose relation to the occupiers – or are they an insider faction? – is distinctly unclear; nor is Alfons Flores’s set made out of innumerable crosses helpful in expounding this intensely human drama.

The virtues of this staging lie in individual performances and in the music-making, with the Royal Opera House orchestra and chorus giving taut and committed interpretations under Antonio Pappano. Sonya Yoncheva – a late stand-in for Anna Netrebko – provides a remarkably accomplished traversal of the intimidating title-role, combining poise with a realisation of the tragic scale involved. Joseph Calleja makes an eloquent Pollione, though the few passages of coloratura do not come naturally to him. Bellini originally cast Norma’s rival Adalgisa as a soprano, but here the traditional mezzo casting is assigned to Sonia Ganassi, with mixed results. Brindley Sherratt finds humanity even within his menacing characterisation of Oroveso.

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George Hall