Antonio Pappano talks about Bellini’s Norma, and tackling the post-Netrebko pinnacle of the bel canto with Sonya Yoncheva.

When it comes to scaling the peaks of the bel canto, Norma is the one most often declared to be the Everest of the art form. It was Lilli Lehmann who once said that singing all three Brünnhildes in the Ring were easier than a single Norma. An emotional rollercoaster of divided loyalties – church and state, head and heart – Bellini’s opera has challenged singers and touched audiences almost from the beginning. Yet, it’s never been on the ubiquitous list like Carmen, La Bohème or Traviata, and it’s perhaps even more surprising that Covent Garden hasn’t staged it in nearly 30 years.

“I think it’s very hard to disassociate the piece from the singers who have sung the title role,” says Sir Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director and the man charged with bringing it back this year. “Way back when it was the Giuditta Pastas, and the Rosa Ponselles, coming through to Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé. But lately, a singer of that stature we haven’t had, really.”

The famous London opera house has had rather a lot of 30 year anniversaries of late. Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut had both fallen by the wayside – “since Plácido stopped singing them regularly,” Pappano explains, but the rise of Jonas Kaufmann has enabled them to bring these pieces back “on a level commensurate with the history of the house”.

Pappano initially planned that his Norma would be a new role debut for Anna Netrebko. The Russian Diva famously pulled out a week or so after the announcement, citing a voice that was evolving in a different direction, leaving The Royal Opera with a bit of egg on its face and its artistic team clearly annoyed (“debacle,” is the word Pappano uses in passing). However, the canny maestro swiftly secured the services of rising star Sonya Yoncheva, and the show was back on track.

However, for Pappano, Norma is far more than just a star vehicle, and the piece is worth it for a whole raft of reasons. “The piece is viewed by the general public as a vehicle for a great prima donna, which it is, there’s no question,” he says, “but I think it’s so much more than that. With his typical kind of economy of means, Bellini, together with Felice Romani – and I think the libretto is absolutely terrific by the way – create moments of such profound emotion, and humanity, and struggle, and inner conflict, and family duty. There are other operas that do this, but this one somehow gets to the core of those emotions in an uncanny way.”

Not that Norma was a big hit on opening night in 1831. The soprano had to be cajoled into singing Casta Diva and the audience response was tepid at the very least. “Fiasco! Fiasco! Solemn fiasco!” wrote a disappointed Bellini. Some have put its failure down to one of the perils of the period: a hostile claque, but whatever the truth of the matter, the opera rapidly gained momentum, and within five years was well on its way to its current popularity. “In this opera, Bellini has undoubtedly risen to the greatest heights of his talent… The action, free from all theatrical coups and dazzling effects, reminds one instinctively of a Greek tragedy… Let anyone name me a spiritual painting of its kind, more fully carried out, than that of this wild Gaelic prophetess… Every emotional moment stands out” – and that was Wagner!

Pappano would definitely agree, and considers Bellini’s premature death at 33 as one of music’s greatest losses. “He worked really slowly – he was very different from Rossini and Donizetti,” he maintains. “Bellini could have written triple the number of operas had he been a music factory like the other two were. But he was very deliberate in trying to find a different way of expression, and to explore how melody could penetrate to a greater degree the heart of every audience member. That takes some doing. I’m not saying that the others didn’t write beautiful melodies, they did, but Bellini had a special something. When somebody like Chopin admires those melodies – and even Wagner – there’s something there.”

Although he’s conducting the piece for the first time, Pappano seems to have known Norma all his life, playing it as a young pianist for his father who used to sing the tenor role. “I remember playing a production of it in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in what must have been 1978, or 1979, with a very good cast at the time,” he recalls. “It was with a soprano called Gilda Cruz-Romo, who could actually sing it. I still have my piano score with the signatures of all the soloists and the stage director and the conductor. I still remember the moments of unbelievable beauty and the pathos of certain sections.” 

It’s rare for a conductor to single out a libretto, but it was Pappano who brought up Romani’s text, which he feels is outstanding for its time. “Of course, it has the typical bel canto conventions,” he admits, “but it soon gets to the meat of things with this air of conflict, oppression and the occupation of enemy forces. You’re thrust into the middle of it very quickly, and I like that. I think the heart of the matter is the duets. These exchanges are, I find, quite modern actually, and very lucid. Some bel canto operas can be quite obscure with the text.”

In Romani’s story, Norma is a druid priestess who has secretly borne two children to Pollione, a general from the occupying Roman army. When his affections turn towards Adalgisa, a young priestess under Norma’s tutelage, the scene is set for a series of unfolding revelations peppered with jealously, betrayal, deceit and revenge. Anyone who’s seen Montserrat Caballé’s overwhelmingly radiant 1974 open-air interpretation, singing in the midst of the mistral, will also know it can be a bit of a flapping robe-and-toga fest. To take the Carry on Cleo edge off their Norma, Covent Garden have turned to Catalan theatrical wizards La Fura dels Baus and visionary director Àlex Ollé.

“It’s a kind of pseudo-Catholic set, that bears many resemblances to the Spanish religion as they know it,” Pappano explains. “Norma is a priestess, and she’s very important, but I think the Romans and Druids thing today… I mean, you see Druids onstage and you think Stonehenge. That’s not a criticism, but I think to bring the piece a little closer to us, we need something that resonates more strongly.”

And it’s not just the challenge of reinventing the story for a modern audience, a conductor has to be equally careful that he doesn’t go into overdrive.

With all bel canto operas, when all of a sudden the dynamic is loud, the composer has the brass – trombones, trumpets, and horns – playing along with everything, “ Pappano explains. “With today’s brass instruments, you have to be very careful to find cohesion, and the balance is not easy (though I must say I think I have found one). I think there’s a case to be made to do it with original instruments, and that’s fine, but it’s not realistic in the situation I’m in here. That said, I think, with modern instruments, for the grandeur of the piece, comes through to an even greater degree. To get the right colours and the right balance is a challenge I think.”

Pappano’s cast on paper looks about as good as it gets nowadays. As well as Yoncheva, he has Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as the feckless Pollione, Italian mezzo Sonya Ganassi as Adalgisa, and British bass Brindley Sherratt as Norma’s war-mongering father Oroveso. I’m speaking to the maestro the day before he begins technical rehearsals, and so far so good, but with any such vocally demanding work there’s always a need for the gods to smile. “My hope is that my singers stay healthy, because for the bel canto repertoire, especially in this piece, you’re totally in the hands of the singers, really,” he admits. “If the work continues as it’s going, the interaction between these characters, especially Yoncheva, Calleja and Ganassi, is something special. They’re really working well, and I think they’ll tell a really gripping story. But for me, personally, the joy of having worked on this piece has been a career-long dream.”

The Royal Opera’s Norma screens at Palace Cinemas from October 28-November 2