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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. First produced at La Scala on 26 December 1831, it is generally regarded as an example of the supreme height of the bel canto tradition. "Casta diva" was one of the most familiar arias of the nineteenth century.
In a letter dated 1 September 1831, Bellini wrote to the soprano Giuditta Pasta that "Romani believes [that this subject] will be very effective, and absolutely ideal for your encyclopedic character, because that is the kind of character Norma has". Indeed, Pasta's vocal and dramatic range was encyclopedic: that March, she had created the very different Bellini role of Amina, the lyrically vulnerable Swiss village maiden, in La sonnambula.
In the 19th century, it was common for composers to interpolate arias of their own into other composers' operas. Richard Wagner wrote an aria for bass and men's chorus for an 1837 production of Norma.
The title role is generally considered one of the most difficult in the soprano repertoire. It calls for tremendous vocal control of range, flexibility, and dynamics. It contains a wide range of emotions: conflict of personal and public life, romantic life, maternal love, friendship, jealousy, murderous intent, and resignation. German soprano Lilli Lehmann once famously remarked on how the singing of all three Brünnhildes in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in one evening would be less stressful than the singing of one Norma. However, her less famous reasoning was that "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 attempted the role of Bellini's tormented Druid priestess, with varying degrees of success. The following is a listing of some of the most renowned Normas, each of whom has brought her own strengths and weaknesses to the role. In the early 1920s, Rosa Raisa, Claudia Muzio, and Rosa Ponselle were each admired in the role. The most prolific Norma of the postwar period was Maria Callas, with 89 stage performances (several of which exist on recording), along with two studio recordings (made in 1954 and 1960).
In the 1960s, two very different performers started donning the Druidess's robes: the Australian Dame Joan Sutherland and the Turk Leyla Gencer. Following Sutherland's 1964 debut in the title role, Pavarotti called her "the greatest female voice of all time".
In 1970, renowned Dutch coloratura Cristina Deutekom tackled the role in her usual fearless fashion, helping her cement her fame in Italy. Throughout the decade, four other bel canto specialists debuted their Normas: Radmila Bakočević, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, and Renata Scotto. Also of interest 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. Contemporary Normas include Fiorenza Cedolins, Galina Gorchakova, Hasmik Papian, Maria Guleghina, Nelly Miricioiu, June Anderson, and Edita Gruberová. In 2008, Daniela Dessì performed as Norma at Teatro Comunale di Bologna. In 2011, Sondra Radvanovsky also added the role to her repertory.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 26 December 1831|
(Conductor: Alessandro Rolla)
|Norma, daughter of Oroveso, High-priestess of the Celts||soprano||Giuditta Pasta|
|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, chief of the Druids||bass||Vincenzo Negrini|
|Clotilde, Norma’s friend||soprano||Marietta Sacchi|
|Flavio, Pollione’s companion||tenor||Lorenzo Lombardi|
A secret love unites the seer Norma with Pollione, the Roman proconsul, father of her two children. But Pollione has grown tired of the aging druid and has fallen in love with Adalgisa, a young temple virgin. Despite Adalgisa's piety and virtue, she agrees to flee to Rome with Pollione. Adalgisa innocently tells Norma of her love, and Norma curses Pollione for his treachery.
Norma is about to kill her children, but her love for them finally consigns them to the care of Adalgisa. When Pollione comes to take Adalgisa from the temple, Norma denounces him; after he refuses to give up Adalgisa, he's seized by the Druids. Norma proclaims herself equally guilty with him. The pyre is lighted and Norma ascends it to die with her lover.
Claudia Muzio, circa 1936
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