The Nearly Perfect Partner
Librettist Felice Romani (1788-1865) was one of the central figures in early 19th-century opera, working with the most important composers of his time, including Bellini’s greatest contemporaries, Rossini and Donizetti. (Verdi even recycled an existing libretto by Romani for his early comedy King for a Day.) Romani wrote the texts for seven of Bellini’s ten operas. After their success with Norma, however, their relationship soured when an overcommitted Romani missed deadlines for their subsequent collaboration, Beatrice di Tenda. Bellini used a different librettist for his next opera, I Puritani, but the two men began to repair their relationship through letters and intermediaries. Bellini’s tragic death at the age of 33, however, made I Puritani his final opera.
The First Two Divas
Considered two of the greatest singers of all time, Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi created the leading roles of Norma and Adalgisa in the 1831 premiere of Bellini’s masterwork in Milan. Pasta was Bellini’s favorite singer, treasured for her unusual vocal colors and passionate emotional range. Pasta encouraged her younger colleague to move up to the role of Norma. When she did so, in 1835, Grisi was considered by many critics of her day to be superior to her illustrious predecessor.
Ponselle and Callas
Two American-born sopranos, Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas, are considered by many to be the greatest Normas of the 20th century. Ponselle sang her first performances of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927, when she was an established star; Callas’s debut as Norma came two decades later, in Florence, when she was only 25 years old. Revered Italian maestro Tullio Serafin (1878-1968) was the conductor on both notable occasions. Ponselle confessed that “I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about how I was going to do in Norma.” Callas, who once described Ponselle as “her idol,” told a friend “I think we all know that Ponselle was the greatest singer of us all.”
Callas Feels Confident
On the eve of her 1948 role debut as Norma, a giddy Maria Callas wrote to her voice teacher Elvira de Hidalgo. “I pray that it will go well, that I’ll be in good health, because after those performances, if they go as well as we hope and dream, I’ll be the queen of opera in Italy, indeed everywhere, for the simple reason that I have reached perfection in singing, and there will not be another Norma in the whole world!” It was indeed a triumph, and Callas would perform Norma nearly 90 times, more than any other role. Still, as she told Maestro Serafin during rehearsals, “It will never be as good as it is now in my mind, unsung.”
A Wagnerian Norma
The greatest Norma of the late 19th-century was Lilli Lehmann. Best known for her Wagnerian roles, she had the vocal flexibility to excel in a wide range of repertoire. She asserted that singing all three Brünnhildes in the Ring cycle was easier for her than a single Norma, insisting that “it should be sung and acted with fanatical consecration.”
Wagner Tries Bel Canto
Norma was one of German composer Richard Wagner’s favorite operas. “Of all Bellini’s creations,” he wrote, “it is the richest in the profoundly realistic way in which true melody is united with intimate passion.” Before he became famous, a 26-year-old Wagner composed a new aria for Oroveso, hoping that the celebrated bass Luigi Lablache would interpolate it in 1839 performances of Norma in Paris. Lablache politely declined, saying that the opera was already too well known by then. Wagner’s effort, “Norma il predisse, o druidi,” a rousing bass aria with men’s chorus, wasn’t performed during Wagner’s lifetime and remains a little-known curiosity today. You can listen to it here.