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Norma War and Peace at Last


“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.

Norma (2015); Photo: Ken Howard

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.

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