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, Normais 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 Ringwere 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 Bohèmeor 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...