The Royal Opera has opened the season with a triumph, and in one of the most difficult of operas, Bellini’s Norma. Not only is the work itself extraordinarily demanding on its three leading singers, but it is the one opera which is now so indelibly linked to one singer that all later performances are defined by whether they are in the same mould or whether they are resolutely different. One can’t envy listeners who have never heard Callas, in one or another of her many recordings of Norma, because it is so overwhelming an experience, but it would make life less disappointing than it already tends to be. I preferred not to go to Bartoli’s recent performance in Edinburgh, having heard her interpretation on CD. The young Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva, in this new production, follows in the Callas mould, and since this is her first attempt at the role, which Lilli Lehmann famously said was more taxing than three Brünnhildes and an Isolde, the result is impressive, verging on the sensational.
On the first night her intensity in Act I was such that she didn’t manage, quite, to sustain it to the end of the opera, that ever-astonishing chain of arias and duets which culminates with her ascending the funeral pyre with her treacherous — and illicit — lover Pollione: though the fire was there cross-shaped, she was mercy-killed by Oroveso with a pistol, but since the last minute of the opera is the only perfunctory music in the whole score, perhaps that was fitting. Unlike almost all Normas, Yoncheva made a striking entry, not only dramatically but vocally, and sang ‘Casta diva’ in a trance, inducing one in the audience — it was no showpiece, but established the nature of the Druids’ devotion.
She had a fitting partner in Sonia Ganassi, already experienced as Adalgisa, a part which in its way is more tricky than Norma.