Opera Daily 🎶 — Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma
"People talk about Callas's Norma, Caballé's Mimí, but what is important is Bellini's Norma and Puccini's Mimí."
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Today we’re listening to two arias from the Italian opera Norma [NOHR-mah] by Vincenzo Bellini. Both of these arias define the bel canto style of composing and singing.
While you will hear many interpretations of bel canto, there is no such thing as a bel canto opera. Bel canto is a style or way of singing in opera from the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, although it can be traced back to opera’s birth in the 15th century. During this period, composers made it clear that the singer was to take over in any way they pleased. The composer would often note this preference in the score using the phrase “col canto,” which instructed the accompanist to follow the soloist’s tempo (time). The literal translation is “with the melody.”
Specific singers and composers became known for this style (Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Vincenzo Bellini have been called the “three kings of bel canto”). Unlike our modern understanding that a composer includes all the notes a singer should sing, singers were expected to add to the written music.
The title role in Norma calls for an authentic bel canto soprano voice, one that can be both “mercurial-birdlike and witchy-dramatic”. While there have been many exciting interpretations of this role, Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballé remain unmatched to this day.
“An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house.”
— Soprano, Maria Callas
🎧 Listening example #1 (7 minute listen)“ Casta diva” from Act 1 of the Italian opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini, Maria Callas, Paris, 1958
YouTube / Apple Music / Amazon Music / Spotify
Soprano Maria Callas is singing the aria here, but some would say that Maria Callas is not just singing the role of Norma, rather she is Norma. The character of Norma is the lover, the leader, the goddess and the woman suffering. There is nothing one-dimensional about the Norma character, and Callas is uniquely capable of revealing this in her performance. 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 (although I must admit, depending on the day, sometimes it feels like Montserrat Caballé’s interpretation from 1974 Théâtre antique d’Orange is as close to perfect as you can get).
Sung in the opera’s first act, this aria 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...
“Casta diva” is the perfect example of the long, elegant vocal phrases we equate with the bel canto style. It is one of the most challenging pieces ever written for soprano (the great Wagnerian soprano, Lilli Lehmann, said that she found it easier to sing all three of Wagner's Brunhilde roles than one Norma). 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.
Norma is a tragedy in two acts that take place in 50 B.C. Gaul. It premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1831. It is the story of the Druid High-Priestess (Norma), who has broken her vows by getting involved with the Roman Pollione (pohl-lee-OH-nay). Pollione has fallen out of love with Norma and now loves the priestess Adalgisa (ah-dahl-JEE-zah). The two women come together over their shared (doomed) love after Norma reveals that she has had children with Pollione. Norma is torn between her love for her sons, and a desire to release them from a future of disgrace and shame by murdering them in their sleep. She spares them and instead asks Adalgisa to take them to Rome and raise them as her own. The druids call for Pollione to be sacrificed. When Norma volunteers to sacrifice herself to the Druid rites (asking her father, Oroveso, to care for her children), Pollione sees Norma’s true spirit.
🎧 Listening example #2 (3 minute listen) “Ah! padre, un prego ancor” from Act 2 of the Italian opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini, Montserrat Caballé, Théâtre antique d'Orange, 1974
YouTube (This is a rare recording and the only free link available. If anyone can find another link to the Orange, 1974 performance, please share in the comments!)
This is one of my favorite moments from Norma and some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear. We are listening to Soprano Montserrat Caballé singing this aria from a 1974 performance at the Théâtre antique d'Orange (a Roman theatre in Orange, Vaucluse, France). Caballé’s phrasing and piano (soft) high notes are just gorgeous.
In this aria Norma is pleading with her father to have mercy on her children and take them into his care. At first he refuses, but then he agrees.
For many experts this scene served as a role model for Richard Wagner for Tristan & Isolde.
“Of all Bellini’s creations, Norma is the one which, besides the richest melody, unites the innermost embers with the deepest truth”.
— Wagner wrote in a letter about Norma
I would be mad at myself if I didn’t include Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer singing this piece. She is a force of nature.
Want more Norma?
Pasta alla Norma, a combination of eggplant, tomatoes, basil, and ricotta, is a popular traditional Sicilian recipe. It was so popular in 19th-century Sicily that it was named after (Sicilian) composer Bellini's Norma to honor both the dish and opera.
In the 2011 movie, The Iron Lady, about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played by Meryl Streep), “Casta diva” (sung by Maria Callas) is played as she leaves Number 10 Downing for the last time.
The opera has one of the greatest mezzo-soprano and soprano friendship duets in Act 2 called “Mira, o Norma.” Norma, dagger in hand, tries to bring herself to murder her children in their sleep to protect them from living without a father. She changes her mind and calls for Adalgisa, advising her to marry Pollione and take the children to Rome. Adalgisa refuses: she will go to Pollione, but only to persuade him to return to Norma. Overcome by emotion, Norma embraces her, and the women reaffirm their friendship and sing “Mira, o Norma.” Here is a performance of Joan Sutherland singing Norma and Marilyn Horne singing Adalgisa.
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 are looking for a full recording of Norma, I highly recommend the Callas/Corelli/Ludwig/Serafin recording here (I also managed to track down the full Caballé 1974 Orange performance of Norma - the quality is not great but it’s available!)
Have a question or want to share your thoughts? A favorite performance? Recording? Leave a comment so we can get this conversation started!
Thank you again for reading (and listening),
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This column brought back fond memories. I was a graduate student in Georgia and knew almost nothing about opera, so long ago out of curiosity I went to hear the touring Metropolitan Opera in Atlanta. The audience gasped in horror when (Rudolf Bing)? walked on stage at the start. But, he said he only wanted to tell us that the sets had accidentally been sent to Tennessee, so they would be "sketchy." The relieved audience cheered when he said both principal singers were there. I was very impressed with the opera, especially a duet, which would later become iconic, called "Miro, o Norma." I later told my roommate, "The sets weren't much, but the singing was pretty good." I had never heard of either Joan Sutherland or Marilyn Horne. I didn't see Norma again until decades later, at the Washington National Opera. They were probably pleased when I commented later that their sets were much better than the ones I saw at the Met.