Today we have a bonus essay from a special member of the Opera Daily community. While this person prefers to stay anonymous, I was so impressed by her response to our post on Norma that I asked if I could publish it as a guest post.
I feel so fortunate that you even subscribe to this newsletter; never mind, share it with your friends, comment and email me, or in this case, take the time to write such a thoughtful response to something we’ve shared.
As I shared in the Opera Daily profile on Substack, I believe my job as the host of this newsletter is to make you feel comfortable enough to build on the content that we put out there. And realize you’re not alone with your thoughts and ideas.
Thank you to our guest today for sharing her thoughts. And I hope this provides some inspiration to others who’d also like to contribute.
See you on Sunday,
Thoughts on Norma
By a guest contributor
My opera reawakening began last year with a video of Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva”. The Divine One opened me up to opera like a key unlocking a door. She beckoned me inside her world, and I shall never leave.
After listening to two audio recordings of Norma with Maria Callas in the starring role, I fell in love with Bellini’s music, from overture to finale. Once my ears and heart approved, my eyes and mind demanded more. This is how I came to watch no fewer than five full productions of the opera since your post, including the Teatro Comunale di Bologna production twice.
Norma introduced herself in Act 1 through her signature aria as the “Casta Diva”* — the chaste goddess, the “vergine celeste”. As the chief priestess of the Druids, she was the interlocutor between the spiritual and earthly realms. Sacrosanctity was required of her because she sacrificed to the gods to ensure favor and well-being for the Druid community. She was also charged with imbuing Druid warriors with courage and inspiration before they entered into battle against their Roman enemies, the occupiers of Gaul.
The main plot of Norma unfolds in one emotional scene after another until it reaches its fiery conclusion. Norma and Pollione, a Roman proconsul, had engaged in a secret, illicit love affair from which two children were born. The children were hidden and cared for by Norma’s trusted friend and confidante, Clotilde.
Norma was approached by Adalgisa, a young priestess in her charge, who asked to be released from her vows because she had fallen in love. As a woman in love herself, Norma was favorably disposed to honor this request. She was suddenly shocked to learn that her lover, Pollione, was the object of Adalgisa’s affection. Shortly after this revelation, Pollione appeared before Norma and Adalgisa in the former’s private quarters. He callously announced to Norma that he had to return to Rome and wanted to take Adalgisa with him. Norma exploded at him in a fit of fury, jealousy, and despair at his betrayal. In so doing, her secret life came to light, much to Adalgisa’s utter dismay.
After this dramatic confrontation, and the earth-shattering truths each had to absorb about loving the same faithless man, Norma and Adalgisa found solace and peace in their friendship for each other. Norma gave Adalgisa her blessing to follow Pollione back to Rome. Adalgisa, however, chose to respect her vows and continue in service to the temple.
Once alone, Norma grappled with her emotional wounds. Should she kill her two beloved children? Should she kill Pollione? What should she do about the Druid army, still awaiting word from her about a propitious time to attack the Romans? Even though she and Adalgisa had reached an accord, Norma knew that Pollione’s presence and predations in the temple, her betrayal of her vows, and her treason against the Druids, required atonement through ritual sacrifice.
Vincenzo Bellini adapted Norma from a play by the French poet Alexandre Soumet (1788 -1845) titled, Norma, ou L'infanticide (Norma, or The Infanticide). The opera premiered on December 26, 1831 at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala.
Putting aside the rapturous music, the series of subplots that comprise Norma’s story have traveled well across cultures and time. Having not read Soumet’s play, and given that Bellini died at the young age of 34, I wondered who deserved credit for the opera’s empathetic portrayal of Norma and Adalgisa. The opera has an enlightened approach to how a “normal” woman might feel if she were confronted with Norma’s dilemmas.
The love triangle is still very much fodder for opera, stage, screen, and reality television. What’s a woman to do when her man not only tells her he doesn’t love her but also threatens to run off with the Other Woman? What if the Other Woman is a friend and co-worker? What will this revelation mean for her future and that of her children? If she has knowingly failed in her moral obligations to herself and her people as a leader, what should she do?
What I loved about Bellini’s Norma is that universal themes of love, infidelity, heartbreak, jealousy, disillusionment, guilt and self-sacrifice were handled simply, straightforwardly and powerfully from a woman’s perspective. Pollione and Oroveso, Norma’s father and counselor, and the chorus of Druid warriors were not so fully drawn. Whereas the women characters were accessible, humanized, and even ennobled, the men were more like prototypes.
I thought it interesting that Pollione and Norma were equal in power, stature, and authority. Yet when they fell in love, she was set on a tragic course. She not only violated her vows as the chief priestess of the Druids but slept with the enemy and bore his children. In this way, their romance became a metaphor for the Roman conquest and control of Gaul. Norma got caught up in contradictions.
In another metaphor, for Pollione to have entered the Druid temple, defiled its chief priestess, and sought out another virgin priestess to despoil, was as much about the contrast between the sacred and the profane, as about love. Norma realized that if a human sacrifice had to be made to appease the Druid deities for her transgressions, that sacrifice would have to be her own life. At the end of the opera, the surprise was the return of Pollione, who confessed to Norma that he loved her, then proved it by joining her in her fiery death.
Most contemporary American women understand the term “chick flick”. Despite its somewhat negative connotation, it is an apt definition for some kinds of movies. For the sake of argument, and based solely upon my feelings about this Alexandre Soumet and Vincenzo Bellini collaboration, Norma to me is a “chick opera”. Bellini and Soumet are certainly no feminists by today’s standards — “an advocate of women’s rights based on the equality of the sexes”. Yet Norma, at its core, honors a woman’s power, leadership, agency, sensibility, friendships, capacity for love, and vulnerability.
This may explain why Norma hit me differently.
The objectifying male gaze in art, which can diminish and subordinate women as victims, is almost absent. Norma, for me, is a heroine who resolved her dilemmas in a heroic way. Even though the setting is ancient Gaul, where Druids and Romans were at war, the opera resonates with how the power of love can overcome differences in tribe, religion, tradition, culture, and war. Norma and Pollione experienced alienation, separation, ritual purification, and restoration of their bonds of love as they died together. When this poignant story was embedded in challenging and beautiful arias, magnificent choruses, and wondrous orchestration, Norma became a transcendent artwork with an enduring appeal across cultures and for men and women alike.
This is a grown folks’ opera. Leave the children at home.
*For a list of our guest’s favorite “cast of divas”:-), please see below:
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