If you are looking for something wonderful, you came to the right place. Today we’re listening to “Casta diva” from Act I of the Italian opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. I think this aria defines the bel canto style of composing and singing, which include:
1) the emphasis of the voice or the vocal line over the orchestra; 2) the tight but elegant use of the orchestra as an accompaniment to the voice; 3) sensitivity to text; 4) “pictorial” writing for the voice to “paint” the text; 5) long vocal phrases, and 6) the use of the traditional Italian operatic structures — the scena and the double aria, (cavatina and cabaletta).
All of the above elements can be found in the opera Norma. (If you are looking for a full recording of Norma, I highly recommend the Callas/Corelli/Ludwig/Serafin recording here).
Maria Callas is singing the aria here, but I think it’s more than that—Maria Callas IS Norma. We are listening to the live recording from Paris in 1958. While Joan Sutherland’s interpretation of Norma represents more of a standard bel canto vocal style and technique, I don’t think there is much disagreement in the opera world that Maria Callas delivered the best interpretation of “Casta diva” we’ve ever heard.
🎧 Listen here (7 minute listen):
Norma is a tragedy in two acts that take place in 50 B.C. Gaul. It premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1831. Sung in the opera’s first act, the aria “Casta diva” is the calm before the storm (well, actually not a storm, but a war). Norma (soprano), the head priestess, leads her people in prayer to the goddess of the moon (“Casta diva” translates as “chaste goddess”).
Chaste goddess, who dost bathe in silver light,
these ancient, hallowed trees,
Turn thy fair face upon us, unveiled and unclouded...
The opera has one of the greatest mezzo-soprano and soprano friendship duets in Act II called “Mira, o Norma.” Here is a performance of Joan Sutherland singing Norma and Marilyn Horne singing Adalgisa.
I would be mad at myself if I didn’t share Renée Fleming’s live performance of this aria from 2010 in the Palaces of the Czars in Saint Petersburg. You can listen to it here. I may be biased, but I think this is pretty awesome.
“Casta diva” is the perfect example of the long, elegant vocal phrases that we equate with the bel canto style. It is one of the most challenging pieces ever written for soprano. It requires agility in the high vocal register (aka, the voice moving fast - like fireworks 💥), plus the ability to sing the dramatic emotional passages that the role demands. The aria was written in close collaboration with Giuditta Pasta, the first Norma, who must have had crazy breath control! 😳 I am always amazed at those today that have the weight in the voice plus the coloratura agility in the high register to perform this role.
Norma was the opera that Maria Callas sang the most, and it shows. Of her 500 opera performances, 89 were the role of Norma. If you want to learn more about Maria Callas, the person, this interview gives you a small window into her life.
If you want more, there is a part two to this interview here.
Happy Sunday to everyone!
If you missed the first post in this series, you could find it here. And don’t worry, we are breaking the rules and profiling more bel canto next week! This will give me a chance to talk more about the bel canto aria structure, mad scenes, and more incredible music.
Thank you for listening,