Libretto by Felice Romani based on the play by Alexandre Soumet
Premiere: Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1831
This opera is an extraordinary fusion of sublime melody, vocal challenge, and dramatic power. It examines an ageless and archetypal situation: a powerful woman compromises her ideals for love, only to find herself betrayed by her lover. But this is only one aspect of her dilemma. Equally gripping is her relationship with the younger woman who is the new object of her former lover’s attention and in whom Norma sees both a rival and a second self. The title role demands dramatic vocal power combined with the agility and technique of a coloratura singer. It is a daunting challenge that few can rise to: those who have are part of operatic lore.
Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) was a Sicilian composer whose greatest gift was his extraordinary understanding of the human voice. His meteoric career was cut short by his death at the age of 33, shortly after his opera I Puritani triumphed in its Parisian premiere. Felice Romani (1788–1865) was the official librettist of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. A frequent collaborator of Bellini, he worked with the composer on six operas, and also wrote the libretti for Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and Anna Bolena, among many other works. The tragedy Norma by the French poet and dramatist Alexandre Soumet (1788–1845) was performed at the Theâtre de l’Odéon in Paris in April of 1831, and suggested to Bellini by Romani as potential source material for an opera.
The opera is set in Gaul (France) at the beginning of its occupation by the Roman Empire. Almost all of the characters are druids, members of the Gallic priesthood, the only exceptions being the tenors, both of whom are Romans. It is interesting that the Roman Empire, long depicted in European culture as a civilizing force, is here seen as corrupt and exploitative.
Norma is perhaps the archetypal bel canto opera, a style of singing that flourished in Italy in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Its principal features are beauty of tone, legato phrasing, and the delivery of florid ornamentation. The score of Norma is characterized by extraordinary melody punctuated by sharp moments of raw drama. The primary functions of the clear orchestral writing are to move the drama along with vigorous rhythm and to inform certain moments with feeling and emotion, such as the superb flute accompaniment to the soprano’s Act I aria “Casta diva.” The drama of Norma, however, is embedded in the nuances of the vocal parts as in few other operas. A note held in one phrase or swelled in another, a snippet flung out with extra edge—these are the sorts of details that create legendary performances of Norma. While such fine points are important in the solos, such as the tenor’s Act I “Meco all’altar di Venere” and especially in the soprano’s “Casta diva,” the details of vocalism become even more crucial in the several ensembles. These include the stirring trio in the finale to Act I and the soprano/mezzo Act II duet “Mira, o Norma.” The blending—and contrast—of the voices, as the two women begin in confrontation and end in unity and friendship, is an astounding example of how much drama can be communicated through singing.
Norma at the Met
Norma entered the Met repertory (in German) in 1890, the title role sung by Wagner specialist Lilli Lehmann. The opera then fell out of the repertory after 1892 until Tullio Serafin conducted a new production, designed by Joseph Urban, in 1927. American soprano Rosa Ponselle sang the title role (which she repeated 28 times throughout the following four seasons) opposite tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and bass Ezio Pinza. Zinka Milanov performed the role 16 times between 1943 and 1954. Maria Callas sang five performances of Norma in 1956, including her Met debut, which also featured Fedora Barbieri, Mario Del Monaco, Cesare Siepi, and Fausto Cleva conducting. A young James McCracken sang the second tenor role of Flavio in these performances. In 1970 a new production premiered with Richard Bonynge conducting Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne making her Met debut, and Carlo Bergonzi. (Sutherland and Horne sang in this opera 27 and 25 times respectively, all in the year 1970.) Later interpreters of the immortal priestess include Montserrat Caballé
(11 performances between 1973 and 1976) and Renata Scotto (14 performances in 1981 and 1982). The current production by John Copley, designed by John Conklin, premiered in 2001 with Carlo Rizzi conducting Jane Eaglen, Dolora Zajick, and Richard Margison.