“This is where all the stars bow down.” I take this verse of Ted Hughes out of context but state with no compunction: there can scarcely be any denying that Bellini’s Norma is not only his greatest opera but the supreme achievement of the whole bel canto school. But is there any point in declaring something “the greatest”? Does it matter that one composer or tennis player or historian or poet surpasses everyone else in the field, especially in the arts, where great masterpieces tend to flow like wine? Perhaps not, but there will always be a tendency to find particular excellence even in the midst of abundance.
Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini turned out a profusion of great operas, many of them worthy of the highest praise. Of this notable triumvirate, Bellini is responsible for the smallest number because, sadly, he died so young. Of others in the same category, such as Mozart and Schubert, it is frequently asked, suppose they had lived longer: would they have given us even more masterworks? In the present case, it is hard to imagine that Bellini could have written anything superior to Norma. I Puritani, his last opera, has much going for it, but Norma remains the apogee of his career.
The opera has a twofold focus, one political, the other personal, and the protagonist is the center of both. Norma, the Druid high priestess, is the leader of her people in their fierce determination to throw off the yoke of the Roman invader. At the same time, she is imprisoned in her affair with the Roman pro-consul (governor) Pollione, whose two children she has borne contrary to her vow of virginity. These two aspects of her life, public and personal, are immediately revealed in her entrance aria “Casta diva”—she refuses to give the order for open revolt against the Romans, and then muses interiorly on her inability to deny her love for the man who will ultimately destroy them both.
This pattern of conflict will persist throughout the opera, with all the inner and outer struggles that afflict the persons of the drama. In every case, the conflict will be resolved by movement from unbending harshness to selfless generosity. The tragic finale will change Norma, Pollione and Oroveso beyond their personal and political limitations.
Beginning with Norma’s entrance, we can sense the primal psychological impulse of the story. The virgin high priestess is a character of powerful yet opposing interior forces; the central focus of the opera is Norma’s struggle to bring a meaningful resolution to the emotional storms that beset her. As high priestess she must tame the raging bloodlust of her people as they thirst for revenge against the Roman occupiers; as a woman she must contend with a similar battle that arises when she must confront a rival for Pollione’s love, the younger priestess Adalgisa.
The classical definition of tragedy points to a noble character who is undone by one principal character flaw. From her first entrance, Norma reveals both these traits. She is a commanding figure, imperiously directing the course of events, steely in determination, totally self-possessed as a ruler. And yet she must confront her inability to extricate herself from the pull of a passionate attachment. Throughout the opera we will see these two opposing forces raging within her until the final downfall of both Norma and her lover. As the title page of the score declares, this is truly a tragedia lirica.
The principal male characters have their own importance and are key movers of events but as personalities they do not change until the final scene. Pollione the seducer and Oroveso, Norma’s father, provide the occasion for the action but the psychological stimulus for it comes from the inner resources of the two women. Their emotional turmoil and its resolution impel the drama with irresistible force through music of unparalleled beauty.
When we open the score to the list of characters its most notable feature is the vocal assignment of the two women: both are listed as sopranos. We think of Adalgisa as a mezzo-soprano but, before the 20th century, composers were less stringent about the range of women’s voices. All of Verdi’s sopranos sang what we think of as coloratura music as a matter of course. Wagner’s writing for Isolde and Brangäne, and Elsa and Ortrud are in the same range. Adalgisa sings both the same notes as Norma or harmonizes with her, but the singer must always lighten her voice to indicate her youth relative to the older woman.
Of the profusion of great musical moments in the opera three stand out, not only in themselves, but as key components of the musico-dramatic whole. The first is Norma’s entrance aria, “Casta diva.” The conventional structure here—recitative, aria, cabaletta—serves as a reminder that the composer’s genius is not constrained by custom: he uses it to further his own aims. In this case the recitative is actually a small scena in its own right. Norma engages in dialogue with Oroveso and the chorus. They argue for immediate military action and she tamps down their ardor.
This is no throw-away introduction; every word of the exchange, and Norma’s words above all, carry weight as indications of character and dramatic intensity. The high priestess establishes her authority at once with an accusation, “Sediziose voci”: this is not the moment for your warlike agitation, she declares. Rome will fall weighed down by its own vices (a highly prescient remark, as history would show). The fierceness of Norma’s order is followed by a vocal inflection that leads into the mood of the aria itself: “Pace v’intimo,” peace is my message.
The orchestra then moves with quiet grace into the magic of moonlight and prayer that will suffuse the great signature aria that follows. A gently rocking movement in the strings and a gleaming flute solo forecast the singer’s invocation of the moon goddess who rules the night sky with gentleness and purity. That this is no mere ritual act is made clear in the second verse of the prayer when Norma makes a deeply personal request that the goddess shed her peaceful light on human hearts as she spreads it over the heavens: “Tempra tu”—this you indicates an intimate dialogue. I am asking you, sings Norma, because we are so deeply united that I know you will hear and answer my prayer.
The cabaletta that follows has its own precise dramatic function. Norma’s interior musing on her lost love is essential for understanding the conflict that has brought her this far and will finally prove her undoing. The whole scene, of unusual length, provides the dramatic focus of all that will follow in the piece. “Casta diva” is no mere vocal showpiece but the seed of the entire drama, and the singing actress who undertakes the part must be aware of the critical role she plays in unfolding it. There are few roles in opera where the lead has the dynamic impetus that Norma possesses.
But another woman enters the scene, an unwitting and unwilling rival to Norma. Adalgisa has been Pollione’s other conquest, but when the younger priestess discovers his treachery she rejects him and swears eternal friendship to Norma. A conventional operatic view might consider the “seconda donna” a mere plot device, but this character has a distinct profile of her own. She and Norma are already allies in the stormy finale of the first act, when both women denounce the womanizing proconsul.
As the second act begins, Norma is desperate. Fearful that her children might be taken from her and deported to Rome, she contemplates murdering them. She immediately repents but it is Adalgisa who fully wins her over by her compassion and devotion. The duet, “Mira, o Norma” is another example of music infusing its power into drama and elevating it to new heights.
Adalgisa begins softly and gently in a mood reminiscent of the start of “Casta diva.” Her voice filled with warmth, she forces Norma to look with compassion on her children. Norma’s response comes not only from her own maternal instinct but is a result of the bonding of the two women. The voices blend in such a way that the music embodies the union of two souls in utter harmony. These two have achieved a degree of nobility rare in human interaction. Adalgisa’s gentleness deters Norma from her Medea-like impulse and releases a flow of humanity that is their common gift. Each vocal line completes the other and enfolds it so that technique is married to emotional expression. It is one of those moments in music when time seems suspended and a supreme peace envelops performers and audience alike.
The aura is not broken but develops into a rush of vigorous determination. The two women sing a cabaletta-duet whose music is so exciting that it tends to obscure the intensity of the text. In it they declare that the whole earth is the protective realm of their friendship and that their loving hearts will always negate the blows of outrageous fortune. Again, the blending of their voices amplifies the power of the emotion that envelops these two noble women.
As the finale of the opera approaches, Norma implores Pollione to reject Adalgisa. When he refuses, Norma’s old fury appears to return. She declares that she will denounce Adalgisa, and calls for her people to assemble. A priestess has broken her vows, she says, and shall be punished with death. When asked who it is, she sings “Son io”—I am the one. Three syllables, two notes, but the quiet and simplicity of the music transforms the entire movement of the drama and the characters within it.
Oroveso is heartbroken at his daughter’s betrayal and rejects her. But he relents when she implores him to care for her children: as a father he understands a mother’s grief. Pollione, converted by Norma’s self-sacrifice, joins her in death. And Norma, rising to full tragic height, atones for her past in the cleansing sacrificial fire.
In most operas of the time a concertato is inserted in which all the characters make a grand musical gesture that enhances the action, even while bringing it to a halt. In this opera it happens at the very end. Once Norma has turned her father’s heart in compassion to her children, she declares that she will go to her death in peace.
At her response to her father, “ah, piu non chiedo”—I can ask for no more—the orchestra and all the vocal forces rise to a tremendous climax, not once but twice. This crescendo, fortissimo, bathes the whole atmosphere in a sense of the transformative peace that Norma implored of the goddess at the beginning of the opera, so that the end rejoins the beginning in redemptive beauty.
The composer has achieved here a kind of musical and dramatic integrity that would rarely be surpassed. Verdi, the undisputed master of Italian opera, unequivocally declared that he was the inheritor of the bel canto tradition, that the roots of his work lay in the tradition defined by his predecessors in the art of the lyric theater. In Norma it is clear that this is the tradition that nourished Giuseppe Verdi and inspired him to the new heights that he was able to achieve. It is not too much to say that without Norma there would have been no Aida, Otello and Falstaff. That these masterpieces came to us through the earlier one make us eternally grateful.
Basil De Pinto writes frequently for LA Opera, and has also written for the opera companies of Washington, Atlanta, Seattle and Fort Worth.