A conductor’s dreams come true at the Royal Opera, reveals Geoffrey Smith
Last spring, launching the Royal Opera’s 2016–17 season (020–7304 4000; www.roh.org.uk), Sir antonio Pappano described Norma as ‘a piece I’ve been dying to do all my life’. an icon of the bel canto repertoire, it’s been a star vehicle for such celebrated Covent Garden divas as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Yet, despite its quality and stature, Bellini’s masterpiece remains a relative rarity in performance, largely due to its vocal challenges, hence the sense of excitement last week as a dynamic staging inaugurated the Royal Opera’s autumn bill.
Conceived to showcase anna Netrebko before her belated withdrawal, it now features the brilliant young Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva, in the eminent company of tenor Joseph Calleja as Norma’s errant lover and mezzo Sonia Ganassi as her rival.
Intensifying the amorous conflict is the updated setting by the radical Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus, evoking contemporary political and religious extremism, and, in the pit, Maestro Pappano and the orchestra spin out the timeless beauty of Bellini’s bel canto lines. Running until October 8, Norma is joined until October 11 by a bel canto comedy classic, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, in the latest revival of the gleeful, muchloved production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. Heading the cast as the fiery Rosina—pursuing her man amid a flurry of vocal fireworks—is argentinian mezzo Daniela Mack, making her Royal Opera debut.
However, a more problematic mix of comedy and romance takes to the Covent Garden stage tomorrow, September 22, in a new production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Once a Cinderella work because of its ironic view of love as a moving target, prone to self-deception, it has become a staple of the modern repertoire, perfectly suited to our sceptical, knowing age. Jonathan Miller’s previous staging revelled in the spectacle of four bright young things thrown into confusion by their emotional assumptions and the German director Jan Philipp Gloger takes the idea of masks and role play even further by setting his new Così in a theatre.
as ever, the one constant among the vexed relationships is Mozart’s divine music, seemingly indifferent to whether what the words express is ‘true’, as it’s always beautiful. Connoisseurs will relish the opportunity to hear it conducted by the gifted Semyon Bychkov, in his first Mozart opera at Covent Garden, until October 19.
ENO gets its season off to a highvoltage start on September 30, with Mozart’s most complex character, the wickedly charismatic Don Giovanni (020–7845 9300; www.eno.org). Shamelessly amoral, driven only by sexual appetite, the Don should be villainy epitomised and yet he’s perpetually fascinating to audiences, just as he is within the opera, a demonic, romantic life force, exempt from all restraint. It’s as if the emotional ambivalence of Così fan tutte had been taken to its ultimate level and the dangerous consequences still cast a mesmerising spell.
Running until October 26, it’s directed by the ever-interesting Richard Jones, with a starry cast that includes Christopher Purves as the Don, Christine Rice as the smitten Donna Elvira and Mary Bevan the winsome Zerlina. On the podium will be the company’s esteemed former Music Director Mark Wigglesworth.
Joining it from October 3 will be a revival of Puccini’s Tosca, which, although unfairly derided as a ‘shabby little shocker’, is sure to pull in the audiences until December 3.
Outside London, the new operatic season promises the same variety, quality and flair. In Cardiff, Welsh National Opera’s (WNO) Shakespeare 400 tribute has got under way with a gritty version of Verdi’s Macbeth, followed by the UK premiere of andré tchaikowsky’s three-decades-old setting of The Merchant of Venice and, finally, as a blithe contrast, Cole Porter’s
Losing my religion: Sir Antonio Pappano described the rarely performed Norma as ‘a piece I’ve been dying to do all my life’