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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 regarded as a leading example of the bel canto genre. "Casta diva", in Act 1, is one of the most famous arias of the nineteenth century.
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In a letter dated 1 September 1831, Bellini wrote to the soprano Giuditta Pasta that "Romani [the librettist] believes [that this subject] will be very effective, and absolutely ideal for your encyclopedic character, because that is the kind of character Norma has". Pasta's vocal and dramatic ranges were extensive: that March, she had created the very different Bellini role of Amina, the Swiss village maiden, in La sonnambula.
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Richard Wagner conducted Norma at Riga in 1837. Following the common nineteenth-century practice of adding interpolated arias, he wrote an aria for bass and men's chorus for this production; however, it has not entered the general repertoire. Wagner wrote at the time that Norma was Bellini's "most successful composition":
Here, where the poem rises to the tragic height of the ancient Greeks, this kind of form, which Bellini has certainly ennobled, serves only to increase the solemn and imposing character of the whole; all the phases of passion, which are rendered in so peculiarly clear a light by his art of song, are thereby made to rest upon a majestic soil and ground, above which they do not vaguely flutter about, but resolve themselves into a grand and manifest picture, which involuntarily calls to mind the creations of Gluck and Spontini.
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The title role is one of the most difficult in the soprano repertoire. It calls for great 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. 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, 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 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".
In 1970, the Dutch coloratura Cristina Deutekom tackled the role. Throughout the decade, four other bel canto specialists debuted their Normas: Radmila Bakočević, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, and Renata Scotto. Also taking the role at 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. 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. 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
(Conductor: Alessandro Rolla)
|Norma, daughter of Oroveso, High-priestess of the Druids||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|
Place: Gaul, c, 50 BC.
The grove of the Druids
Oroviso leads the Druids in a procession in the forest to pray for victory against the invading Romans (solo and chorus "Ite sul colle, o Druidi.") When they have left, enter Pollione and Lucius. Although Norma secretly broke her vows for him, and bore him two children, Pollione tells Lucius he no longer loves Norma, having fallen in love with the priestess Adalgisa. Exeunt the Romans and enter Norma with the crowd (chorus: "Norma viene.") She prophesies that the time is not yet come to strike against the Romans (the famous aria "Casta diva.") Only Adalgisa remains when Pollione returns with the news that he is returning to Rome, begging Adalgisa to go with him (duet: "Va', crudele.").
Adalgisa tells Norma she has fallen in love with a Roman. When Pollione enters and Adalgisa names him as her love, Norma is furious and accuses him of betraying her and her children (trio: "Oh! di qual sei tu vittima.")
Norma considers killing her sons, but cannot bring herself to commit the deed; instead she asks Adalgisa to take the boys with her and Pollione to Rome (duet: "Deh! con te, con te li prendi.") Adalgisa however renounces Pollione (duet: "Mira, o Norma") and wishes to persuade him to return to Norma.
The Druid warriors gather to attack the Romans, but Oroveso advises them the time has not arrived. Norma learns that Adalgisa has not convinced Pollione to return, and in anger strikes a gong-like shield as a summons to war. At this point Pollione is captured, having broken into the temple attempting to kidnap Adalgisa. To save Pollione from being sacrificed, Norma announces that it would be better to sacrifice a priestess who has broken her vows, and names herself as the victim (aria: "Qual cor tradisti.") She leaps into the flames, followed by the re-enamoured Pollione.
Claudia Muzio, circa 1936
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