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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 9, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 06
A fine Bulgarian soprano as Bellini's Norma
Arts & Entertainment
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A fine Bulgarian soprano as Bellini's Norma

by Rod Parke - SGN Contributing Writer

BELLINI'S NORMA
ROYAL OPERA HOUSE
DVD BLU-RAY

J.S. BACH: MASS IN B MINOR
ACCENTUS MUSIC
DVD BLU-RAY


Because I have no wish to waste your time nor mine, I try to order for review only those discs that look promising as candidates to enhance a music lover's library. Alas, what looks promising turns out sometimes to be highly flawed, either technically or musically. Such was the case with the two Blu-ray discs covered in this review. So, the point this time is more a warning than a recommendation.

The discs are, first, a new production from Royal Opera, Covent Garden, of Bellini's great opera Norma, and, second, a 2017 video of Bach's 'Mass in B minor', with Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and some fine soloists. The appeal of the Norma disc is the young soprano du jour, Sonya Yoncheva, in the lead role. (She stars in no fewer than three of this season's Met Live in HD presentations at the cinema.) Is this Bulgarian singer that great?

Norma was one of Wagner's favorite operas. Both its music and its drama are of the highest caliber, but of special interest is the extremely challenging nature of the title role. The soprano must have supreme breath control and almost super-human stamina, as well as a beautiful voice with easy tops and perfect legato line. As well, her coloratura must be at least passable, and she'd better grab you dramatically, or it will be a long haul to the end. Called the 'Mt. Everest of soprano roles,' it is a supreme test for a new artist.

While nowhere near as great a Norma as American Sondra Radvanovsky, whose Norma opened this season's Met Live in HD (recently telecast by PBS), Yoncheva almost succeeds here in this live performance in London. Her technique is rock solid, and her voice is lovely, warm, and of considerable size and weight. And those who saw her very recent Tosca at the cinema know that she has considerable dramatic skills. I enjoyed her Norma despite her omitting most of the high notes (shocking!), and in spite of her only rudimentary coloratura (clean but no trills).

Too bad the production surrounding her violates almost everything one might want in this opera! Where to begin? The setting is no longer the Druid culture during Roman occupation; instead there are a gazillion crucifixes, each complete with the dead Christ, Roman Catholic processions with incense and some KKK coneheads, a chorus dressed in modern military garb, and stage direction that has these soldiers slithering backwards on their bellies to get off the stage. The great scene in which Norma (in slacks and heels!) contemplates killing her children is dominated by a big, flat-screen TV with cartoon bunny rabbits, flanked with a Monopoly set and a modern bicycle. The boy wears large headphones. Absolutely nothing about the production illuminates the narrative, and everything contradicts the sublimity of the music. The designer and director both must have hated this opera!

The music-making, led by the superb Antonio Pappano, is generally first-rate. Tenor Joseph Calleja sings perfectly but has minimal acting chops. Mezzo Sonia Ganassi (considerably past her prime) makes a valiant effort to resurrect her former vocal glories, and bass Brindley Sherratt is vocally excellent. Video and audio quality are first-rate.

The aforementioned Bach disc is a major disappointment. Memories of the radiant warmth of the old Robert Shaw LPs and the crystal clarity and excitement of the John Eliot Gardner CDs spoil one's chances of enjoying this live performance. The visuals are okay, but the sound is multi-miked mono, despite being labeled DTS-HD on the jacket. Everything sounds pinched and lacking in warmth or any sense of space between the instruments. Even the usually excellent bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni sounds thin and cold. Only the tympani come off sounding alive. The recording engineers should apply at McDonalds!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rodparke41@gmail.com.

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