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|Opera by Vincenzo Bellini|
Domenico Donzelli, Giuditta Pasta,
and Giulia Grisi (original cast)
|Premiere||26 December 1831Teatro alla Scala, Milan –|
|Opera by Vincenzo Bellini|
Domenico Donzelli, Giuditta Pasta,
and Giulia Grisi (original cast)
|Premiere||26 December 1831Teatro alla Scala, Milan –|
Norma is a tragedia lirica or opera in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani after Norma, ossia L'infanticidio (Norma, or The Infanticide) by Alexandre Soumet. It was first produced at La Scala in Milan on 26 December 1831.
The opera is regarded as a leading example of the bel canto genre and a major soprano aria, "Casta diva", in act 1, is one of the most famous of the nineteenth century. A notable Norma of the post-war period was Maria Callas.
The management organisation, "Criveli and Company", was managing both La Scala as well as La Fenice in Venice, and as a result—in the April to May 1830 period—Bellini was able to negotiate a contract with them for an opera for December 1831 at La Scala—which became Norma—and another for the 1832 Carnival season in Venice for an opera which became Beatrice di Tenda.
With Bellini's La sonnambula successfully staged in March 1831 and Giuditta Pasta having demonstrated her extensive vocal and dramatic ranges in creating the role of Amina, the Swiss village maiden, she had been engaged by La Scala for her debut during the following season. Bellini and Romani then began to consider the subject of the coming autumn's opera. By the summer, they had decided to base it upon Alexandre Soumet's play which was being performed in Paris at around that time and which Pasta would have seen.
For the forthcoming autumn/winter season, La Scala had engaged Giulia Grisi, the sister of Giuditta, and the well-known tenor Domenico Donzelli, who had made a name for himself with Rossini roles, especially that of Otello. They would fill the roles of Adalgisa and Pollione. Donzelli provided Bellini with precise details of his vocal capabilities which were confirmed by a report which the Neapolitan composer Saverio Mercadante also provided. By the end of August it appears that Romani had completed a considerable amount of the libretto, enough at least to allow Bellini to begin work, which he certainly did in the first weeks of September as the verses were supplied. He reported in a letter to Pasta on 1 September:
Norma was completed by about the end of November. While, for Romani, it became "the most beautiful rose in the garland" of all his work with Bellini, it was not achieved without some struggles. Bellini, now at the height of his powers, was very demanding of his librettist and required many re-writes before he was satisfied enough to set it to music.
After rehearsals began on 5 December, Pasta baulked at singing the Casta diva in act 1, now one of the most famous arias of the nineteenth century. She felt that it was "ill adapted to her vocal abilities", but Bellini was able to persuade her to keep trying for a week, after which she adapted to it and confessed her earlier error. At the opening night, the opera was received with what Weinstock describes as "chill indifference". To Florimo on the night of the premiere, Bellini wrote "Fiasco! Fiasco! Solemn fiasco!" and proceed to tell him of the indifference of the audience and how it affected him.
In addition, in a letter to his uncle on 28 December, Bellini tried to explain the reasons for the reactions. As other commentators have also noted, some problems were innate to the structure and content of the opera, while others were external to it. Bellini discusses the tiredness of the singers (after rehearing the entire second on the day of the premiere) as well as noting how certain numbers failed to please—and failed to please the composer as well! But then he explains that most of the second act was very effective. It appears from the letter that the second evening's performance was more successful and Weinstock reports it was from this performance forward that it "was recognised as a successful and important opera" with 208 performances given at La Scala alone by the end of the 19th century.
Among the external reasons, Bellini cited the adverse reaction caused by "hostile factions in the audience" consisting of both the owner of a journal (and his claque) and also of "a very rich woman", who is identified by Weinstock as Contessa Giulia Samoyloff, the mistress of the composer Giovanni Pacini. On Bellini's part, there had long been a feeling of rivalry with Pacini ever since the failure of his own Zaira in Parma and his return to Milan in June 1829. With no firm contract for a new opera for Bellini, Pacini's success with his Il Talismano at La Scala—where it received 16 performances—fueled this rivalry, at least in Bellini's head. It was only when he staged a triumphant revival of his own with Il pirata with the original cast that he felt vindicated. Pirata received 24 consecutive performances between 16 July and 23 August 1829, thus outnumbering those for Pacini's opera. However, Bellini also noted that on the second performance evening of Norma, the theatre was full.
In all, Norma was given 34 performances in its first season at La Scala, and reports from elsewhere, especially those from Bergamo, when it was staged in late 1832, suggested that it was becoming more and more popular. Between 1831 and 1850 Weinstock provides details of the dozens of performances given in numerous cities outside of Italy, and then he gives details those beyond.
Bellini left Milan for Naples, and then Sicily, on 5 January 1832 and, for the first time since 1827, 1832 became a year in which he did not write an opera. Norma quickly "[conquered] the whole of Europe in the space of a few years".
Richard Wagner conducted Norma at Riga in 1837. Following the common nineteenth-century practice of adding interpolated arias, he wrote an aria for the bass and men's chorus for this production. However, that aria has not entered the general repertoire. Wagner wrote at the time that Norma was "indisputably Bellini's most successful composition". He continues by praising Romani's libretto:
The opera was given its British premiere in London on 20 June 1833 and its US premiere at the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans on 1 April 1836. In the late 1840s and during the Risorgimento era, some of the music was used in demonstrations of nationalistic fervour, one such example being the 1848 celebration of the liberation of Sicily from the rule of the Bourbons held in the cathedral in Palermo. There, the Guerra, guerra (“War, war!”) chorus from act 2 was sung.
During the 20th century, with the bel canto revival, the most prolific Norma was Maria Callas, who gave 89 stage performances (several of which exist on live recordings as well as two on studio versions made in 1954 and 1960). Callas' first appearances in the role began at the Teatro Comunale di Firenze in November/December 1948 followed by the second at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires in June 1949, both of which were conducted by Tullio Serafin. The following year, she appeared in the role at La Fenice in Venice in January 1950, this time under Antonino Votto. In London in 1952, Callas sang Norma at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in November (where one of the smaller roles was taken by Joan Sutherland); she made her American debut singing the role at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in November 1954 under Nicola Rescigno; and then she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York under Fausto Cleva in October/November 1956.
Many other notable sopranos have performed the role, so that in modern times, Norma continues to be quite widely performed. Operabase shows 274 performances of 62 productions in 51 cities given or planned to be given since 1 January 2012.
The title role—"one of the most taxing and wide-ranging parts in the entire repertory"—is one of the most difficult in the soprano repertoire. It calls for great vocal control of range, flexibility, and dynamics as well as containing a wide range of emotions: conflict of personal and public life, romantic life, maternal love, friendship, jealousy, murderous intent, and resignation. The German soprano Lilli Lehmann once remarked that the singing of all three Brünnhilde roles of Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen in one evening would be less stressful than the singing of one Norma. She also commented "When you sing Wagner, you are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene that you do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself. But in Bellini, you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct emission."
Throughout the 20th century, many singers have taken the role of Norma. In the early 1920s, its was Rosa Raisa, Claudia Muzio, and Rosa Ponselle who were each admired. Maria Callas emerged as a major force in the role in the post-World War II period and she made several recordings.
In the 1960s, two very different performers took the role: the Australian Dame Joan Sutherland and the Turk Leyla Gencer. Following Sutherland's 1964 debut as Norma, Luciano Pavarotti called her "the greatest female voice of all time".
The Dutch coloratura Cristina Deutekom tackled the role in 1970. Throughout the decade, four other bel canto specialists debuted their Normas: Radmila Bakočević, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, and Renata Scotto. Also sining Norma during this period were Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett, the American divas who began as mezzo-sopranos and eventually started singing soprano repertoire.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the role of Norma was performed by such different singers as Katia Ricciarelli, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Marisa Galvany, Dame Gwyneth Jones, and Jane Eaglen. Other Normas include Hasmik Papian, Fiorenza Cedolins, Galina Gorchakova, Maria Guleghina, Nelly Miricioiu, June Anderson, Edita Gruberová and Carmela Remigio (who performs more frequently the role of Adalgisa).
In 2008, Daniela Dessì performed as Norma at Teatro Comunale di Bologna. In 2010 (in Dortmund) and 2013 (at the Salzburg Festival) the role was taken by famous mezzosoprano Cecilia Bartoli: this version was also recorded with coloratura soprano Sumi Jo as Adalgisa. In 2011, Sondra Radvanovsky also added the role to her repertory, one to which she returned in the autumn 2014 at the San Francisco Opera. On 13 April 2013, the Italian bel canto soprano, Mariella Devia, after a career of 40 years and one day after turning 65, successfully made her debut as Norma at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast,|
26 December 1831
|Norma, daughter of Oroveso,|
High-priestess of the Druids
|Adalgisa, priestess in the grove of the Irminsul statue||soprano (today often sung by a mezzo-soprano)||Giulia Grisi|
|Pollione, Roman proconsul in Gaul||tenor||Domenico Donzelli|
|Oroveso, Norma's father; Chief of the Druids||bass||Vincenzo Negrini|
|Clotilde, Norma's friend||soprano||Marietta Sacchi|
|Flavio, Pollione's companion||tenor||Lorenzo Lombardi|
Scene 1: The grove of the Druids
Claudia Muzio, circa 1936
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Oroveso leads the Druids in a procession in the forest to pray for victory against the invading Romans: (Oroveso and druids: Ite sul colle, o Druidi / "Go up on the hill, oh Druids. Go and observe the skies and see when the new moon will show her silver crescent"). The Druids' pray that Norma will come and have the courage to break the peace with the Romans: (Druids and Oroveso: Dell'aura tua profetica / "With thy prophetic aura, imbue her o terrible God".) All leave to go to the temple.
Pollione and Flavio enter. Although Norma has secretly broken her vows in order to love him and has borne him two children, Pollione tells Flavio that he no longer loves her, having fallen in love with the priestess Adalgisa. But he expresses some remorse, describing his dream in which Adalgisa was beside him at the altar of Venus and a huge storm arose: (Pollione, aria: Meco all'altar di Venere / "With me at the altar in Rome was Adalgisa dressed in white, veiled all in white".) The storm presaged disaster for them both: "Thus does Norma punish her faithless lover", he declares. They hear the trumpets sounding to announce Norma's arrival. Flavio urges his friend to leave, but Pollione stands firm, proclaiming that he will confront them with a superior power and overthrow their altars: (Cabaletta: Me protegge, me difende / "I am protected and defended by a power greater than theirs / I am inspired by the thought of the one I love...")
As Norma leads the Druids and Priestesses, the crowd proclaims: Norma viene / "Norma is coming" and, as Oroveso awaits her, they describe her dress and manner. All kneel as she approaches. "The time is not ripe for our revenge", she declares, stating that Rome will perish one day by being worn down. Then, with the mistletoe in hand, she approaches the altar with a plea to the "Chaste Goddess": (cavatina: Casta diva / "Chaste goddess...turn upon us thy fair face, unclouded and unveiled"). Continuing, she pleads that the goddess shed upon earth that peace which she has created in heaven. She calls for all to complete the rites and then clear the uninitiated from the grove. To herself, she declares that she cannot hurt Pollione, but desires that things return to where they used to be: (Cabaletta: Ah! bello a me ritorna / "Return to me oh beautiful one as in the bloom of our true love"). The assembled crowd accepts her cautious approach, and all leave the grove.
Later that night: The Temple of Irminsul in the grove
Adalgisa prays at the temple, remembering with some sorrow how she became involved with Pollione. He enters, telling her that she prays to a cruel god and is not trying to invoke the god of love. While she appears to reject him, he declares (Aria: Va crudele /"Go oh cruel one, to your god make an offering of my blood") but he is convinced that he cannot leave her, he is distraught, but she is equally torn, until the moment when he declares that he must return to Rome the following day. He begs Adalgisa to go with him: (Duet: Pollione, then Adalgisa, then together: Vieni in Roma / "Come to Rome, my darling; Love and joy and life are there"). She resists him, but finally appears to agree that they will leave together the following day.
Scene 2: Norma's dwelling
Norma appears to be upset and orders her maid, Clotilde, to take the two children away from her, expressing very conflicted feelings about them. She tells Clotilde that Pollione has been recalled to Rome, but does not know if he will take her or how he feels about leaving his children. As Adalgisa approaches, the children are taken away.
Adalgisa tells Norma she has fallen in love with a Roman, whom she does not name. As she describes how she fell in love while waiting at the temple and seeing "his handsome face" appear, Norma recalls (as an aside) her own feelings for Pollione ("my passions too burned like this"), and more and more, their experiences of falling in love run parallel: (Norma and Adalgisa, duet: Sola, furtiva al tempio / "Often I would wait for him, At the temple, alone and in secret"). Adalgisa pleads for help and forgiveness, and Norma pledges that she will do that and will also free her from her vows as a priestess: (Norma: Ah! si, fa core, abbraciami, Perdonno e ti compiango / "Yes, take heart, embrace me. I forgive you, and sympathise with you". Adalgisa: Ripeti, o ciel, ripetimi / "Say that again, heavens, say again, Such wonderful words: Through you my long suffering is calmed".)
Norma asks Adalgisa to describe the man whom she loves. Responding, she tells her that he is a Roman and, at that moment, turns to indicate that it is Pollione who is just then entering the room. As Norma furiously turns to confront Pollione, Adalgisa is confused: Norma: Oh non tremare, O perfido, per lei. Essa non è colpevole, Il malfattor tu sei / "O faithless man, Do not tremble for her. She is not guilty, You are the wicked one".
Forcing the priestess to realise that she is the victim of a huge deception, Norma addresses Adalgisa. (Trio: each sings in succession, beginning with Norma: Oh! di qual sei tu vittima / "Oh, you are the victim, of such a bitter, deadly deception. It would have been better to die, than to know this man!" ; then Adalgisa: Oh! qual transpare orribile, Dal tuo parlar misterio / "Your mysterious words, reveal such horror"; then the two women together, followed by Pollione alone: Norma! de' tuoi rimproversi, segno non farmi adesso / "Norma, do not reproach me now", continuing with "Please give this wretched girl some respite"; after which all three repeat their words, singing at first singly, then together.)
There follows angry exchanges between the three, Norma declaring Pollione to be a traitor, he trying to persuade Adalgisa to leave with him, and she angrily telling him to go away. When he declares that it is his fate to leave Norma, she encourages the young priestess to go with him, but the latter declares that she would rather die. Norma then demands that her lover go, leaving behind his children—and his honour. (Finale: brief duet, Adalgisa and Pollione: he declares his love and she her desire to Norma not to be the cause of grief to her. Trio: Norma continues to rage at Pollione, Adalgisa repeats her desire to make him return to Norma, and Pollione curses the day when he met Norma.) Then the sound of the Druids calling Norma to the temple is heard. They report that the angry god, Irminsul, has spoken. Pollione storms out.
Scene 1: Norma's dwelling
Norma looks at both of her sons, who are asleep. She considers killing them. Advancing towards them with knife upraised, she hesitates. (Recitative: Dormono entrambi...non vedran la mano che il percuote / "They are both asleep...they shall not see the hand which strikes them".) But she cannot bring herself to do it: (Aria: Teneri, tenerie figli, Essi, pur dianzi delizia mia / "My dear, dear sons; a moment ago they were my delight, in their smiles, I thought I saw the forgiveness of heaven".) The children wake up and she calls for Clotilde, demanding that Adalgisa be brought to her.
The young priestess enters, concerned at how pale Norma looks. Norma makes her swear to do everything she asks and, upon her agreement, tells her that she is entrusting the two children to her care and states that they should be taken to the Roman camp to their father, a man whom she hopes will make a better husband for Adalgisa than he was for her. Adalgisa is aghast. Norma: "I beg you for his children's sake". (Duet, first Norma: Deh! con te, con te li presendi, Li sostieni, li defendi / "Please, take them with you, support them and protect them; I don't ask you for honour or power, let that be kept for your own children.") Adalgisa tells her that she'll never leave Gaul and only agreed to the request in order to do what was good for Norma. (Duet, Adalgisa: Vado al campo, ed all'ingrato Tutti io reco il toi lamentri.) In the duet, Adalgisa agrees to go to the Roman camp and tell Pollione of Norma's grief but her hope is to persuade him to return to Norma. She then renounces Pollione: (Duet: Mira, o Norma / "O Norma look at your dear children of yours on your knees. Be moved by pity for them, even if you have no pity for yourself.") They sing together, each expressing her own thoughts and feelings until Norma realises that Adalgisa will give up Pollione and remain with her: (Cabaletta: Duet, Norma and Adalgisa: Si fino all'ore estreme, compagna tua m'avrai / "Yes, you will have me as your friend until your last hour; the world is large enough to be a shelter to both of us together".)
Scene 2: The grove
The Druid warriors gather and prepare themselves to attack the Romans. Oroveso enters with news from the gods: the time has not arrived to strike. Somewhat frustrated, the soldiers accept the decision.
Scene 3: The temple of Irminsul
Norma enters. (Aria: Ei tornerà. Si, mia fidanza è posta in Adalgisa / "He will come back. Yes, I place my trust in Adalgisa: he will come back repentant, imploring, full of love.") Then Clotilde arrives with news that Adalgisa has failed to persuade Pollione to return. Although Norma questions whether she should have trusted her, she then learns from her servant that Adalgisa is returning and wishes to take her vows at the altar and that the Roman has sworn to abduct her from the temple. In anger, Norma strikes a gong-like shield as a summons to war. Trumpets sound and Oroveso and the Druids all rush in, demanding to know what is happening. They hear Norma's answer and the soldiers take up the refrain: Guerra, guerra! / "War, war!", while Norma proclaims "Blood, blood! Revenge!"
In order for Norma to complete the rites to authorise going to war, Oroveso demands to know who will be the sacrificial victim. At that moment, Clotilde rushes in to announce that a Roman has desecrated the temple, but that he has been apprehended. It is Pollione who is led in, and Norma is urged to take the sacrificial knife to stab him, but—approaching him—she is unable to perform the deed. The assembled crowd demands to know why, but she dismisses them, stating that she needs to question her victim.
The crowd departs: (Duet, Norma and Pollione: In mia man alfin tu sei / "At last you are in my hands; no one can cut your bonds. I can"). Norma demands that he forever shun Adalgisa; only then will she release him and never see him again. He refuses, and she vents her anger by telling him that she will then kill her children. "Strike me instead", he demands, "so that only I alone will die", but she quickly rounds on him with the announcement that not only will all the Romans die, but so will Adalgisa, who has broken her vows as a priestess. This prompts him to plead for her life. (Cabaletta: Norma and Pollione: Già mi pasco ne' tuoi sguardi / "Already I take pleasure in the look you give me, your grief and in her death; at last I can make you as miserable as I".) When Pollione demands the knife, she calls the priests to assemble. Norma announces that it would be better to sacrifice a priestess who has broken her vows, and orders the pyre to be lit. Oroveso demands to know who is to be sacrificed while Pollione demands that she keep silent, but Norma then reveals that it is she who is to be the victim because she is the guilty one, a high Priestess who has broken her vows, has become involved with the enemy, and has borne his children. (Aria, Norma to Pollione: Qual cor tradisti / "May this awful moment now show you the heart you betrayed and lost"; Duet: Norma and Pollione; Ensemble, Norma, Oroveso, Pollione, Druids, Priests: each expresses his/her sorrow, anger, pleas to Norma, with Oroveso learning for the first time that Norma is a mother.)
In the concerted finale, Norma pleads with Oroveso to spare her children (Deh! non volerli vittime / "Please don't make them suffer"). As she prepares to leap into the flames, the re-enamoured Pollione joins her, declaring "your pyre is mine as well. There, a holier and everlasting love will begin".
It was Giuseppe Verdi who—late in his life—made some perceptive comments in a letter of May 1898 to Camille Belaigue, who had recently published a book on Bellini. In the letter, Verdi states:
Therefore, commenting on the overall quality of the music in Norma, David Kimble states that:
Additionally, Kimbell provides examples of how the composer's art in revealed in this opera, but also noting that the ability to achieve a "fusion of music and dramatic meaning is to be found elsewhere in Bellini's work"
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