“Well, I think my Norma is something in between Maria Callas and Cecilia Bartoli.” Sonya Yoncheva, stepping into the title role at Covent Garden when Anna Netrebko decided Norma wasn't for her after all, was giving herself plenty of wriggle room when interviewed last month in The Sunday Times. Perhaps it was good she raised the spectre of Callas herself, because plenty of others would have been ready to do so. In the end, Yoncheva's Norma is a good deal closer to the legendary Greek soprano on the vocal spectrum than many would have wagered.

Sonya Yoncheva (Norma) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Sonya Yoncheva (Norma)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Quite why some commentators cast doubts on Yoncheva's ability to essay this iconic bel canto role is puzzling. The purity of her Marguerite and her passionate, feisty Violetta here in London, and her desperately moving Iolanta in Paris, have already marked her out as an extraordinary singer and actress, qualities required in spades for Norma. Recitatives were darkly coloured, the verbal assaults on Pollione, her erstwhile lover, full of scorn, unleashed like a snarling tigress. “Casta diva” – quite simply the emblematic bel canto aria – was gorgeously phrased with silken legato, Yoncheva's teasing rubato as hypnotic as the giant thurible which swung back and forth. Shafts of moonbeams shot through the woodwind section in an accompaniment sensitively shaped by Sir Antonio Pappano. The ensuing cabaletta “Ah! bello a me ritorna” was a little gusty, but whole-hearted, and Yoncheva blazed in duet. An incendiary role debut.

Sonia Ganassi (Adalgisa) and Joseph Calleja (Pollione) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Sonia Ganassi (Adalgisa) and Joseph Calleja (Pollione)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Joseph Calleja's warm vibrato and liquid golden tone is a throwback to the age of Björling, Gigli and Tagliavini – a far cry from the clarion tenors often associated with the role of the Roman proconsul Pollione. He suffered a few intonation issues at the start, but quickly settled to deliver a performance which almost made Pollione sympathetic, despite being the love-rat in the nest.

Sonia Ganassi's soft-grained mezzo lacks a plush lower register, but she offered a sincere portrayal of Adalgisa, blending well with Yoncheva's much brighter tone in duet. “Mira, o Norma” was most touching. Brindley Sherratt's splenetic Oroveso had a strong military bearing, Pappano whipping up rebellious fervour in the pit, but the bass wasn't in his finest vocal form on this much anticipated opening night.

But what of the actual production, the first new Norma seen at Covent Garden for nearly 30 years? As with their Oedipe last season, Àlex Ollé and his Fura dels Baus team stage a spectacular looking show. A thousand crucifixes become the “timeless oaks” of the Druids' grove, enveloping – asphyxiating – the stage beneath a crown of thorns (more crosses).

"Casta diva" © ROH | Bill Cooper
"Casta diva"
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Norma's father, the war-mongering Oroveso, presides over a vaguely modern-day religious sect which is decidedly Spanish Catholic in flavour (replacing the Gauls of Felice Romani's libretto). Pollione represents an occupying force whose purpose is obscured. Character motivation is clear, even if Ollé's stage direction itself is decidedly old school. Essentially, he pins the plot down as a love triangle within the suffocating cloak of religion... and Bellini and Romani wouldn't argue much with that. Norma shelters her children in the confessional, from where she later hears the young priestess Adalgisa reveal her secret love. “Casta diva” is delivered from a pulpit. There's even a spot of pew abuse to enjoy.

Sonya Yoncheva (Norma) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Sonya Yoncheva (Norma)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Act II opens on an unsettling domestic scene – Norma's children blithely playing with Scalextric and a Spacehopper while Watership Down is aired on the flatscreen television (Richard Adams' timid rabbit Fiver referencing the Druid's clairvoyant powers?). Ever the practical priestess, Norma lays down plastic sheeting to minimise the mess as she prepares to commit infanticide.

Revealing that she has betrayed her vows, Norma condemns herself to the sacrificial pyre. Crucifixes begin to glow as a giant cross flickers animated flames to which Norma and Pollione seem destined, before a cruel twist at the end denies her that Brünnhilde-like immolation. Pay attention, or you'll miss it! 

A striking production and a terrifically enjoyable evening, especially for Yoncheva's superb assumption of the title role.