Bellini’s opera Norma was first performed on December 26, 1831, at La Scala in Milan. The libretto, by Felice Romani, was based on Norma, ou l’infanticide (“Norma, or the infanticide”), a play by Alexandre Soumet.
Norma has since become one of the most beloved and admired operas in the repertory and with good reason. The melodies are astonishingly beautiful, Bellini’s compositions and structures are forward-looking. And the plot of the opera, full of conflicts that still seem vital today, tells a story that continues to appeal.
Norma, a high Druid priestess of a temple in Gaul during the Roman occupation, has secretly had two children fathered by Pollione, the Roman proconsul of Gaul. Now Pollione’s affections have strayed and unbeknownst to Norma, he is in love with Adalgisa, a young vestal virgin in her temple. When Norma learns that Adalgisa and Pollione are planning to escape and go to Rome, her anger turns on Pollione, not on Adalgisa, who is her dear friend. If anything, the friendship of the two women only grows deeper. So, in a sense, Norma is a proto-feminist opera with themes that continue to seem valid today.
Let us follow the plot with some terrific videos from the YouTube collection.
Video One: Overture performed by the Orchestra del Teatro San Carlo
I will never forget the first time I heard this overture when I was in a History of Opera course in conservatory. It struck me as completely right in every way, with its depiction of extreme conflict and somewhat amazingly, an evocation of something valid that seems rooted in the atmosphere of the Roman occupation of Gaul. (Verdi did something similar when he magically invented a new sonority that evoked the flavor of ancient Egypt when he wrote Aida.)
And the melodies explode, one after the next. What an overture, what an introduction to the plot that is about to follow, with its exploration of the tragic results of an unfaithful man and the love triangle he unleashes.
Video Two: “Meco all’altar di Venere” (“With me at the altar of Venus,” aria sung by tenor Michael Spyres)
Pollione, the Roman proconsul who has betrayed Norma after fathering her two children, tells his friend Flavio that he has had a dream in which he and his new love, the temple virgin Adalgisa, were in Rome at the temple of Venus. Midway through the aria, we hear the druids singing as they approach the sacred oak where Norma will perform Druidic rites.
Video Three: “Casta Diva” (“Chaste Goddess,” aria sung by soprano Anna Netrebko)
In this magnificent aria, surely one of the most gorgeous melodies ever written, the high priestess Norma sings a prayer for peace while she snips a branch from the sacred oak. In the cabaletta that follows the main aria, she sings of her desire that her lover, Pollione, come back to her. So her internal conflict is laid bare by the brilliant composer Bellini and his librettist.
Please note that there are many videos of “Casta Diva.” I have chosen this one with Anna Netrebko because it includes the cabaletta – even though it shows a concert performance and not a staged production of the opera.
Video Four: “Mira O Norma” (“See, oh Norma,” duet sung by Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne)
Norma, sung by Joan Sutherland here, does not yet know that Adalgisa has fallen in love with Pollione. Here the two women sing of their friendship and of Norma’s love for her ill-born children.
Video Five: “Dormono entrambi” (“Entwined, they are asleep,” scene sung by Cecilia Bartoli)
Norma approaches her two sleeping children, intending to kill them because they are the children of her Roman lover Pollione. Yet she cannot bring herself to do it. It is a brilliant scene that brings out the depts of the conflicts that Norma suffers.
Please note that I was unable to find a video of this scene that shows the on-stage action. Apologies.
Video Six: “Deh, no volerli vittime” (“I do not want them to be victims,” final scene of the opera sung by Montserrat Caballé, Jon Vickers and others)
In the final scene of the opera, Norma confesses her guilt and begs her father, the high priest Oroveso, to spare her children. She throws herself into the pyre, followed now by Pollione who has at last recognized what a woman she is. (Note that in this staging there is no fire – the stage lighting just shifts to red.)
The melodic and unresolved harmonic structure of this scene, one of the most forward-thinking and astonishing in all of opera, presages later operas, including Wagner’s Tristan. Amazing, moving and more – just as one might expect from the astonishing Vincenzo Bellini.
More Norma Performances Await Your Listening
And please do not forget that complete recordings of Norma are available in the Classical Archives library. Pick one, listen and be mesmerized by this astonishing music drama.