Opera wars! New York – well, the bits of it I bother about – is aflame with the row over the Metropolitan Opera’s casting of Bulgarian soprano, Sonya Yoncheva in the title role of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.
Zachary Woolfe is a veteran vat of vitriol lurking in the New York Times opera criticism department. On 5 March he threw a bucketful squarely in Yoncheva’s face.
“She neither loses control nor takes real command. And it’s not just strength you can’t convey if you’re not vocally in command as Norma; it’s weakness, too. Yoncheva spends much of the time blandly moping around, small-scale on this soaring canvas.
“Her voice is not ugly, but it’s inadequate for this music.”
He also pans her for basic flaws. Lack of breath control in the signature aria at the opening of the work, Casta diva, “gulping for air”. He dismisses the singer, who was fast becoming a Met favourite, as having risen on the back of “last-minute fill-ins” and solo recitals.
Ouch! That’s as vicious as it gets in the catty world of opera crit. But opera singers meneed to ride the punches. Perhaps a more seasoned victim of Woolfe’s barbs would have shown him the finger and got on with proving him wrong. All I can say is that in the role of Fedora earlier this season Yoncheva was sensational.
Sonya Yoncheva, still establishing her frontline career, ignored the famous maxim, “Don’t get mad, get even.” She took to the Twittersphere, hysterically claiming discrimination, got into huge online spats, was a “no show” at future performances – initially “indisposed” – and then simply M.I.A. She had headed for the hills.
Still on the billing for this week’s performance, when the curtain rose, it clearly was not Yoncheva. The priestess leading the Druid band facing up to Roman occupation was Australian soprano, Helen Dix, unlikely to be mistaken for the elfin Yoncheva in a darkened room.
What was extraordinary was that the customary practice of a pre-performance onstage announcement of the cast change was abandoned. The Met’s department of explanation had given up. Some of the playbills had thin slips of paper announcing Dix. But not all.
Norma is a notoriously difficult role. It represents the apex of Bellini’s bel canto style. Long, narrative melodies start, move up, curl back for a few notes, rise again, turn in on themselves, flowing like rivers of beautiful sound to their long conclusion. There is no repetition, as in conventional three section da capo arias (ABA). Norma has proved the graveyard of many hitherto well-regarded sopranos.
Bellini launched a revolution in 19th century musical construction. In his short career – he died at the age of 34 – he managed to impress Berlioz, Chopin and even the demanding Wagner.
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Chopin, it is said, had a work of Bellini’s played to him on his deathbed. Whether to remind him of bliss in this world, or that he may be about to find something better in the next, is not recorded.
Verdi continued to pioneer the flowing, narrative operatic style, stripped of conventional set pieces, culminating in his sung-through Falstaff. Listen to Lenski’s aria, a turbulent torrent of ever-changing emotion, in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and it becomes immediately clear he, too, is taking up where Bellini left off.
Norma is the operatic version of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix the Gaul, the popular Franco-Belgian comic strip about derring-do in a 50 BC village of hold-out Gauls who defy Roman occupation.
Norma is a Druid priestess who holds the village in thrall. Only when she beats the sacred shield, hanging conveniently from a dying tree, will the Druids attack the Romans. Until then peace should reign.
Little known to her followers, Norma has entered into a separate peace treaty with Pollione, the hated Roman General, resulting in a vapid affair, two children and a love nest within the Druids’ forest of bristling mistletoe. The wonder of the thing is, this breach of the anti-Roman Druid code has gone unnoticed by Oroveso, leader of the Druid fraternity, who must be pretty obtuse.
If Norma is rumbled a Druid Procedure Committee will likely investigate. If she is suspended from her cauldron for more than ten days, a by-election for an alternative priestess may be held.
That might well be an opportunity for Adalgisa, Norma’s best priestess-mate. But she and Pollione have now fallen in love. Norma tries to convince Pollione to give up Adalgisa. She, Adalgisa, if you’re still onboard for the ride of this silly plot, refuses to go to Rome with Pollione, acts honourably and pledges loyalty to Norma.
Eventually, after a lot of wrangling about taking the children to Rome and Norma’s failed attempt to murder them rather than let them be brought up as Roman slaves, the high priestess confesses her fault and is sentenced to death by fire.
As she walks into the pyre, Pollione is so struck by her selfless act of principle that he falls in love with her all over again and follows her to a fiery death.
Talk about a bad sense of timing. “Actually, Norma, I love you after all. What shall we do now? Oh, the pyre thing. Hum, ho. We’re all in this together. Damn!”
I entertain a fantasy that Goscinny and Uderzo saw Norma at a Paris revival in 1958 – and so was born the warrior legend, Asterix. Sadly, probably just a fantasy. The wonder of the thing is that librettist, Felice Romani, was sufficiently skilled to shape this farcical sequence of events into one of the uber-tragic operas of the period.
Small thanks to the originator of the story, the minor French poet Alexandre Soumet. Soumet died in 1845, leaving a follow up epic about Joan of Arc unfinished.
I learnt from an archive manuscript only yesterday that the work contains the astonishing revelation that Joan was conducting an affair with Henry VI of England at the time the fire leapt round the faggots at her feet. But, today, Saturday, is April 1st after all.
For those not yet up to speed with Asterix and the Faithless Priestess, the full synopsis of Norma can be found here.
The Met’s David McVicar 2017 production revival has lost none of its dark enchantment. McVicar creates a magical forest, criticised by Woolfe as “drab”. But forests in 50 BC Gaul were not Coney Island fun parks. Set designer Robert Jones does a fabulous job establishing an ethereal atmosphere.
The illusion of the pyre, located backstage in the closing scene was particularly convincing as Norma and Pollione walked together to their deaths.
Setting the piece in period is the correct approach. At the Edinburgh Festival in 2016, directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier set Norma during the Second World War, where the Druid priestess becomes a French resistance leader, and the Roman occupiers are Nazis in full “Sieg Heil” absurdity. With all the references in the libretto to sacred rites, prayer books and mistletoe, the production screamed contradiction.
On the night stand-in for Yoncheva, Dix, provided us with a passable Norma. Truth be told, during her Casta diva aria she had to pause mid-phrase to take the occasional breath, but the audience was so relieved someone was singing the role those moments slipped by.
She is a powerful actress. Particularly in the scene when she contemplates infanticide she portrayed her irrational, conflicting emotions convincingly. No first-time viewer could have foretold whether or not her knife was about to strike. The whole point of that awful scene.
Dix did herself plenty of favours, has already appeared at the Met as a rumbustious Alice Ford in the 2019 Falstaff and surely gained bonus points with the casting director for stepping in. She tends to turn up once engaged. I bet she will be back.
Ekaterina Gubanova, a Russian mezzo-soprano, was the handwringing Adalgisa. She has a superbly mellow mezzo tone and was careful to allow her passion to run away with her common sense. Sometimes Adalgisa is portrayed too simply as a prissy priestess, shocked by Pollione’s advances. It’s more complicated than that. It takes two to tango under that Druid mistletoe.
Michael Spyres was the conflicted Pollione. It’s a terrible role, because the general is an out and out b***ard. And irresolute with it. Spyres, an American tenor, was more than up to the job.
At the podium, Maurizio Bellini, an Italian conductor expert at delivering a Bellini bel canto score, took the Met orchestra to fluent heights.
My ultimate problem with this Norma is the contrast with the Norma of 2017. That production, available on Met On Demand, is so topflight. Entirely different league from the current show.
With Sondra Rodvanovsky in the title role and Joyce DiDonato singing Algedisa, it is a totally different proposition. Suddenly, the grown-ups are in the room. But that’s the cash-constrained world of opera today. There cannot be star casts for every revival. And a star cast is what Bellini’s opera needs to really do it justice.
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