Online opera guide & synopsis to Vincenzo Bellini’s NORMA
Norma is an effective opera written in the heroic spirit of its time. A story full of passion and with a tragic end. What Lucia di Lammermoor was for Donizetti is Norma for Bellini, it is his signature work and perhaps the greatest master work of the belcanto era.
♪ Act I (Forest scene, In Norma’s house)
♪ Act II (Friendship scene, Temple Scene)
♪ Oh di qual sei tu vittima (Terzetto)
♪ Perfido! Vanne, si (Terzetto)
♪ Mira o Norma (Duett Adalgisa, Norma)
♪ Qual cor tradisti! (Quartetto)
Felice Romani, based on a tragedy by Soumet.
Oroveso,Head of the Druids (bass) - Norma, Priesterin der Druiden und und Tochter von Oroveso (Soprano) - Adalgisa, young priestess of the druids (soprano) - Clotilde, Confidant of Norma (Mezzosoprano) - Pollione, Proconsul of the Romans in Italy
EMI, Maria Callas, Giulietta Simionato, Mario del Monaco under the direction of Antonino Votto and the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala di Milano
ROLES & SYNOPSIS OF NORMA IN 4 MINUTES
An artistic symbiosis
Thanks to his success with the opera “I Capuleti e Montecchi” at the Venetian Teatro La Fenice, Bellini was commissioned by the management of La Scala (who also directed the Fenice) to write two operas for the 1831/32 season. The leading role in the first opera, Norma, was to be played by Giuditta Pasta, who had shortly before shone as Armina in Bellini’s Sonnambula and had her first contract with La Scala. She became an important reference for Bellini’s compositional work and he wrote to her that he had conceived this role “per vostro carattere enciclopedico”.
Norma a role for the great divas
Norma works best when it is sung by great opera voices. It is perhaps THE part of the dramatic bel canto. Next to it, this part does not tolerate a mediocre Adalgisa or Pollione, which makes the cast of this opera a nightmare. The cast of the first performance in 1831 was thus made up of two of the greatest sopranos in opera history. Giuditta Pasta was the first Norma and Giulia Grisi the first Adalgisa. Later in opera history Maria Malibran, Jenny Lind, Rosa Ponselle, Joan Sutherland and of course Maria Callas excelled as Normas.
Maria Callas’ Norma
At this point we must also talk about the importance of Maria Callas’ Norma. Toscanini was of the opinion that it is impossible to adequately cast the Norma due to the many demands of the role. If a person succeeded in this in the age of recording, it was Maria Callas. More importantly, it was her interpretation that brought the Belcanto repertoire back into fashion. The subsequent renaissance of Bellini and Donizetti would not have been possible without her, and Norma is the most important title in this repertoire.
A highly fruitful artistic collaboration with the librettist Felice Romani
Praise also goes to the lyricist Romani, who found inspiring words for this aria. Romani was the most sought-after librettist of his time. He was 15 years his senior, and Bellini developed a friendship at an early age that was conducive to collaboration. Romani wrote a total of seven opera libretti for Bellini over a six-year period, making him an important literary reference for the precocious and productive composer.
The failure of the premiere
The premiere at La Scala in Milan was a fiasco. The performance is said to have suffered from the fact that the singers were exhausted from rehearsals and Bellini also lamented a hostile claque. Romantic conspiracy theories even spoke of a paid intrigue by Bellini’s ex-lover, the Russian Countess Samoylov, who at the time was supposed to have a liaison with a competitor of Bellini’s. The audience was probably simply surprised by the novelty of the opera.
The second performance already brought the breakthrough and Norma was performed thirty-one more times in the same season of La Scala. It quickly began its triumphal procession throughout Europe and was performed in New York only 8 years later.
The role of the choir
The musical range from warlike scenes to religious ceremonies and many dramatic accompaniments testifies to the importance Bellini attributed to the choir. Not only the many independent choral numbers testify to this, but also the accompaniment o fmany soloist passages with scenic and musical functions.
NORMA ACT I
Synopsis: In the sacred forest of the druids. A ceremony is in progress. The visionary Norma will cut the holy mistletoes this night and announce the will of the god Irminsul. The Gallic warriors march up solemnly.
The overture is a simple but effective piece, which gets its beauty from the Bellinian melody art. We hear a beautiful orchestral introduction conducted by Toscanini.
Overture – Toscanini
Synopsis: Oroveso, the supreme druid and father of Norma, opens the rite. He and the druids hope that the oracle will prophesy a revolt against the Roman occupiers.
Oroveso remains rather unimposing throughout the opera from a scenic point of view. He doesn’t have to do much more than look serious. Musically Bellini has written a very nice part for the bass. This scene is very reminiscent of the scene from Verdi’s Nabucco 10 years later, with Zaccharia as high priest and the Jews.
Ite sul colle – Rossi
Synopsis: Pollione, the proconsul of the Roman occupiers, is accompanied by the centurion Flavione in the forest. Pollione secretly fathered two children with Norma, who broke so her vow of chastity as a priestess. For some time he has had a relationship with the younger Adalgisa. Now he has been called back to Rome and wants to take her with him. He tells Flavione about his dream in which Norma took revenge on him.
The role of the pollione is classified in tenor circles as “B-roll”. Although an important one, the figure of the Pollione is clearly overshadowed by the two female roles. We do not learn much about his character and motives during the opera, so the role remains superficial in scenic terms. Musically, the role demands a powerful, rich tenor voice. So this part was often sung by the more robust voices like Corelli or del Monaco.
Meco all altar del venere … Me protegge – Corelli
Synopsis: Norma and the priestesses march solemnly.
The choir has a tremendous presence in this opera. It not only has independent numbers like these, but also has scenic and musical functions in many solo numbers. The musical range from warlike scenes to religious ceremonies and many dramatic accompaniments testifies to the importance Bellini assigned to the choir.
Norma viene: le cinge la chiomea – coro lirico siciliano
Norma’s famous aria «Casta Diva»
Synopsis: Norma declares that the time for an uprising is not yet ripe, because a war cannot yet be won. She cuts the mistletoes to question the God. On a bright full moon Norma begs the moon goddess for peace.
The aria is set in a moonlit night. Bellini’s orchestral accompaniment is simple, each word is understandable by the restraint of the orchestration and gives a dramatic meaning to the text and thus to the ritual of the druids.
The aria was written in close collaboration with Giuditta Pasta, the singer of the premiere. Bellini is said to have written no less than nine sketches. With Pasta he had already developed the role of Amina in “La sonnambula”. Bellini originally wrote the aria in G major. But Pasta wanted a little deeper. Since then it has generally been sung in the F major variant (i.e. one note lower).
Bellini has written an accompaniment with a fixed pattern. A waving 12/8 bar allows the singing voice the freedom of the rubato, the voice floats above the orchestra and the singer can thus give the aria her own character. Verdi spoke of the “long melody” of Bellini. It is known that Bellini’s style inspired Chopin. Many of his nocturnes are written exactly in this way:
Casta Diva became one of the greatest and most important arias of the Belcanto. The combination of a broad crescendo and a melody constantly increasing in pitch moves the listener and, together with the magic of the moon night, results in a harmonious and gripping tone painting.
First we hear a live recording by Maria Callas from a complete recording with the conductor Votto. The cantilena floods, and the high B flat is beautifully sung.
Casta Diva – Callas
The greatest Norma after the time of Callas was probably Joan Sutherland. She was the first to rediscover the original key and sang the aria in higher G major.
Casta Diva – Sutherland
Sonya Yoncheva dared to take on the role in 2016, after Anna Netrebko finally abstained from singing the role in the Convent Garden. She convinced in this difficult role. She makes this prayer a dreamy cantilena.
Casta Diva – Yoncheva
Norma was one of Rosa Ponselle’s greatest roles. Especially impressive are the beautiful ornaments and the bright voice that makes the long melody shine.
Casta Diva – Ponselle
Synopsis: Norma’s in conflict. She also wants to be loyal and call the Gauls to war, if God commands it, but no one knows of her love for Pollione, the Roman leader.
Norma wavers between her two roles as lover and priestess. But in the end her actions are determined by her love for Pollione. She longs for him from the bottom of her heart and is willing to compromise the fate of her fatherland.
Donizetti took the aria “Ah bello a me ritorno” from his opera “Bianca e Fernado”. We hear Maria Callas in this demanding number peppered with coloratura.
Ah bello a me ritorno – Callas
Adalgisa awaits Pollione
Synopsis: When the ceremony is over, everyone leaves. Only Adalgisa remains alone. She expects Pollione, but like Norma she suffers from the conflict of conscience. Pollione appears and begs her to go with him to Rome. Adalgisa hesitates to break her priestesses oath. But finally she promises to come to Pollione’s camp the next day.
Domingo has only sung the Pollione live seven times, but saw the role as ideal for his voice.
Va crudele – Domingo / Cossotto
Adalgisa visits Norma
Synopsis: Norma is in her remote house, where her confidante Clothilde raises the two children Normas and Polliones. Norma has learned that Pollione has been called back to Rome. Adalgisa unexpectedly visits her. She confesses to Norma her love for a man and wants Norma to free her from her vow of chastity. Norma remembers her own situation when she was in love and follows her request.
It is a moving duet of the two priestesses. Musically especially beautiful is the a cappella ending of the two voices (from 10.09).
Oh rimembranza. Io fui cosi rapita – Callas / Simionato
Pollione appears – Adalgisa and Norma recognize the truth
Synopsis: At that moment, Pollione enters the room. When Norma realizes that Pollione is Adalgisa’s lover, she reveals her secret. Both women are in shock. Pollione promises to be faithful to Adalgisa, but she doesn’t want to live anymore with Pollione.
Oh di qual sei tu vittima – Callas / Simionato / del Monaco
The great terzetto with a voice like a burning arrow
Synopsis: Norma trembles, she is called to the altar and swears, blind with rage, to take revenge on Pollione, who has to leave the house alone.
In Norma, the ornamentation of the vocal part does not aim at virtuosity (as in Rossini’s operas), but is a carrier of feelings. In this passage it is the anger of Norma. Interestingly, Giuditta Pasta was also said to have used her fioritures sparingly and used them only where they served a dramatic purpose.
We hear the great trio of the finale with three great voices in the Callas recording of 1954. Listen to the glistening fireworks of the Callas from 2.30. It is a sound like a glowing arrow, unique as only Callas could do it. Listening, you can literally feel her voice burn.
Perfido! Vanne si, mi lascia indegno – Callas / Simionato / del Monaco‘ mobile_image=” attachment=” attachment_size=” format=’16-9′ width=’16’ height=’9′ conditional_play=” av_uid=”]
NORMA ACT II
The dagger scene in the children’s room
Synopsis: It’s morning. The children are asleep. Norma approaches them with a dagger in her hand. She is unable to kill them, motherly love prevails.
The literary model of Soumet’s opera provided for a child murder at this point. But Bellini and his librettist changed the plot. Bellini had no penchant for horror stories, like many of the romantic composers and contemporaries. So he also renounced a mad scene in order not to inflate the ending even more. Even without the murder it is a touching scene. Only a few were able to put feelings as masterfully into tones as the Sicilian Master.
I figli uccido, teneri teneri figli – Callas
Synopsis: She calls for Adalgisa and suggests that she takes the children to the Roman camp, and to leave with them and Pollione to Rome.
Norma has the usual love triangle as her theme. Unusually, the rivals of this opera are not two men, but two women. This fact makes Norma a very special opera. The scenes of two female voices inspired Bellini and belong to the greatest of opera literature.
Deh, con te ti prendi – Sutherland / Caballé
The great duett of Norma and Adalgisa – ” Mira, o Norma “
Synopsis: But Adalgisa refuses, instead she wants to go to Pollione and ask him to make up with Norma again.
Mira o Norma: It is perhaps Bellini’s most beautiful and best known duet, sung by the two female voices of Norma and Adalgisa. Again Bellini has the orchestra play a swaying accompaniment in the first part and an intimate melody touches the listener. Then the two priestesses sing the voices with beautiful ornamentation in the enchanting interval of thirds. In the second, fast part, Bellini syncopates the voices and adds a beautiful effect with the rising dotted eighth-note scales.
We hear a congenial couple in the recording of Marylin Horne and Joan Sutherland. John Steane, the famous English critic, commented on the two: “The Horne-Sutherland partnership is the most brilliant in record history.” Kesting commented on the recording: “In the parallel voice lines, we experience a virtuosity that is unparalleled after the war”. Listen, for example, to the ending at 5:14!
Mira, o Norma – Sutherland / Horne
We hear the same scene again in the Votto recording with Maria Callas and Giuliana Simionato. From a dramatic and musical point of view it is the counterpart to the first recording, the emphasis is on drama and less on beauty. The ending is electrifying, the applause frenetic. Kesting writes about this recording: “A climax brings the phrase “Ah si fa core, abbracciami”, where Callas takes a high C with perfect attack and lets it breathe in a diminuendo – the audience, at first breathless, literally breathes in at the end of the tone with the singer”.
Mira, o Norma – Callas / Simionato
The third recording is Rosa Ponselles’. Kesting: “Perfect in the parallel voice lines, dancing to the music, with a fabulous sense of timing”. For example, listen to the scene from 2.03, 5.14 and 6:19!
Mira, o Norma – Ponselle / Telva
Synopsis: Both are deeply moved and swear their friendship.
It is a beautiful and lively conclusion of this great scene of Adalgisa and Norma.
Si fino all’ore estreme – Callas / Ludwig
The warriors are ready for war
Synopsis: The Gallic warriors are gathered in the forest.
Non parti – Bonynge / LSO Chorus
Norma proclaims war
Synopsis: But Oroveso must comfort the warriors. Norma has not yet received any signals from heaven. Meanwhile Norma has learned that Adalgisa’s attempt was in vain. On the contrary, Pollione even swore to rob Adalgisa from the temple. Norma trembles with anger and strikes the shield, the sign of war.
Guerra! Guerra! – Callas / Rossi
Pollione is caught
Synopsis: The ritual of war demands a sacrifice. There is a message that a Roman has been caught trying to enter the temple. He is brought here. Pollione appears in fetters. Norma demands that he be sacrificed by her. But she hesitates. She demands to be left alone with him, where she demands of him to leave Adalgisa. But Pollione is not ready. Norma threatens to sacrifice Adalgisa at the stake.
We hear Maria Callas and Mario Filippeschi in this exciting scene. Maria Callas sings her part with a gripping almost aggressive energy. You only hear the beginning and the end of this duet.
In mia man alfin tu sei – Callas / Filippeschi
Synopsis: Norma revels in Pollione’s pain.
Gia mi pasco – Callas / Filippeschi
The grand finale – the renunciation of Normas and Pollione
Synopsis: Norma lets the Gauls come back and announces that another sacrifice will end at the stake. It is a priestess who has broken her chastity oath. But she does not name Adalgisa, but accuses herself. Moved Pollione recognizes Norma’s sublimeness and feels again the love believed lost. He is now ready to die with her.
Qual cor tradisti – Callas / Simionato / del Monaco / Zaccaria
Norma implores her father
Synopsis: Adalgisa asks her father to take care of her children. Disgusted, he refuses. But Norma appeals to his heart and he promises her. Pollione and Norma climb the stake together.
We’re listening to a recording of Leyla Gencer. Her vocal performance is incredibly dramatic and moving. Gencer was a contemporary of Callas and a renowned specialist of the Belcanto repertoire, unfortunately she was largely ignored by the record industry.
Deh, non volerli vittime!
For many experts the scene “Padre tu piangi” served as a role model for Richard Wagner for Tristan & Isolde. Wagner wrote in a letter about Norma: “Of all Bellini’s creations, Norma is the one which, besides the richest melody, unites the innermost embers with the deepest truth”. Wagner knew Norma well, he had conducted it repeatedly during his time in Riga. Wagner did not lose his esteem for the Italian even in old age.
We hear Norma’s request to her father in a beautiful scene with Montserrat Caballé.
Ah padre un prego ancor – Caballé
Recording recommendation of the opera NORMA
EMI, Maria Callas, Giulietta Simionato, Mario del Monaco under the direction of Antonino Votto and the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala di Milano.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on NORMA by Vincenzo Bellini.