Norma

About the Composer


Tchaikovsky

Bellini lived the quintessential life of the Romantic artist. Born in humble obscurity, he came into his genius as a student, became the darling of the public, lived a tormented life, and died young. Today, his music doesn't get performed as often as that of some of his contemporaries because of its difficulty. But when it is performed (and performed well), audiences invariably adore it.

Bellini was born to a family of musicians in Catania, Sicily. His father and grandfather were church organists, composers, and conductors, and they were pleased to discover their young Vincenzo was a child prodigy. But the family was poor, and Bellini would have stayed a provincial composer in Sicily if a wealthy neighbor hadn't become his patron. The Duchess of Sammartino paid for the young Bellini to study at the conservatory in Naples, the nearest city and one of the centers of the opera world. In Naples, Bellini met the young composer (and alumnus of the Naples Conservatory) Gaetano Donizetti. He also met Gioachino Rossini, Italy's leading composer and the music director of the San Carlo opera house in Naples. These three men-Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti-would dominate the period of Italian opera known as bel canto.

But before joining that formidable trio, Bellini needed an education. He showed such promise as a student his first year, the conservatory waived his tuition for the following years. At the conservatory, Bellini learned to value melody above all other elements of music. In his operas, he took the art form of constructing melodies to new levels, leaving a profound impact on later Romantic composers such as Chopin and Liszt. Bellini graduated from the conservatory in 1825 with a final project: his first opera, Adelson e Salvina. At the performance was Domenico Barbaia, the impresario of Italy's two greatest opera houses, the San Carlo (in Naples) and La Scala (in Milan). He commissioned a new opera from Bellini and eventually paired him up with Felice Romani, the greatest librettist of the day.

Unlike Rossini and Donizetti, each of whom wrote dozens of operas, Bellini wrote only ten. Five of them were based on texts by Romani: Il pirata, La sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and Norma. The last is their greatest collaboration; although the audience at the first performance was hostile, by the third night it was clear Norma would be a hit. After a falling out between Bellini and Romani, the composer moved to Paris. He wrote his final opera, I puritani, for the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris. Its libretto is inferior to Romani's work; nevertheless, I puritani is a masterpiece and seemed to indicate that the composer was setting out in a new direction.

Bellini was 33 when I puritani opened. He was the toast of Paris: young and handsome, with curly blond hair and an exotic Sicilian accent, the celebrated creator of music of exquisite sensitivity. According to the German writer Heinrich Heine, the composer "looked like a sigh in silk stockings." Bellini was also vain, ambitious, mean-spirited, and supremely envious of Donizetti, his great rival. After the premiere of I puritani, the exhausted Bellini took a vacation, got very sick, and died even as the crowds were applauding his music in Paris. Donizetti wrote a Requiem mass for his rival and the leading singers of the day performed it in the Hôtel des Invalides. Bellini was buried in Paris, in Père Lachaise, although his remains were later transported to Sicily.

About Bel Canto

Bellini, along with Rossini and Donizetti, dominated the Italian opera scene during the days of so-called bel canto opera. What is bel canto? The words are easy—"beautiful singing"—but their sense can be misleading. One would hope that all operas involve beautiful singing; what's so special about bel canto operas? In bel canto, the most important element in the performance is the voice of the singer. There may be a story, an orchestra, and splendid visuals, but the opera is really all about the singers, their voices, and their ability to use those voices to create beauty and communicate. Bellini and his colleagues wrote their music with specific performers in mind. They also developed traditional musical structures that streamlined the process of creating new operas (important in an industry as frantically busy as today's film industry) and ensured an attentive audience.

Since plot was of secondary importance to the audiences of bel canto operas, the composers used a special kind of musicæknown as recitativeæwhen moving from one moment in the story to the next. Recitative is midway between singing and talking, and tends to be less tuneful than declamatory. In Norma, the brief recitatives may remind you of quick-moving spoken drama. Music that is not recitative is either an aria (if it features only one singer) or an ensemble (if several performers are showcased). The lyrics for this kind of music don't advance the plot so much as reflect on the emotions that the events of that plot have caused the characters to feel.

Furthermore, composers of serious bel canto operas always liked to divide their arias and ensembles in two. So here are some more musical terms for you: in an aria (or scena, if it's especially big and grandiose) there are two parts, the cavatina and the cabaletta. In the cavatina, the emotion tends to be relaxed: dreamy or sad or hopeful or whatever. Then, in the recitative separating cavatina from cabaletta, something happens in the story to change the singer's mood. The character discovers the key to the prison where her sweetheart has been wasting away, or decides he truly loves his girlfriend even though he was mad at her in the first half, or a messenger runs in and tells the character that his mother is about to be executed. This change in mood gives the character cause to sing the cabaletta, usually a much more vigorous number than the cavatina, in which the character expresses ecstasy, fury, terror, or some other high-energy emotion.

Now, if we're composing an ensemble (a duet, trio, etc.), we use the same two halves, only we call them not cavatina and cabaletta but primo tempo and stretta. First our lovers are fighting, then they make up and sing of their agreement. Or, first they are happy to be together, then something comes up, and they must partæand they sing about how difficult it is to do so. The idea is, when aria alternates with ensemble, cavatina with cabaletta, primo tempo with strettaæall of them separated by recitativeæthe audience is continuously interested in ever-changing music full of contrasts.

A word on the role of the chorus: all bel canto operas open with a chorus, whose members also frequently chime in during scenas and big ensembles. Each bel canto opera also features a gargantuan ensemble, called the concertante, in which everybody onstageæall the characters and the entire chorusæsing at the same time, and they all sing different melodies and different words. In Norma, the concertante comes in the final scene, as Norma and Pollione mount their funeral pyre. By the way, this scene of sacrificial co-immolation, inspired by the story of the death of Dido in Virgil's Aeneid, created a fad of sorts; dozens of Romantic operas written after Norma end with lovers committing suicide together in a Liebestod, or love-death. Richard Wagner, who adored Norma, ended his Ring cycle with a magnificent Liebestod-finale in the scene of Brünnhilde's Immolation.

The Great Normas

Norma is both high priestess at the Druid's temple of Irminsul and high priestess at our temples of art, the world's great opera houses. The role is for opera sopranos what Hamlet is for actors: the unscalable Everest at the heart of the repertory. Performers love and fear this role; it has the power to define-or to destroy-a career. The role is so rich no one singer can exhaust its possibilities, and it's so challenging, it physically exhausts many singers before they can make a mark on it.

The soprano who tackles Norma needs a beautiful voice and then so much more. Norma sings high notes, low notes, and every note in between and she must sing with a consistently beautiful tone in every register. She must be loud enough to be heard over a noisy orchestra, and also capable of projecting her quiet singing, her ravishing pianos and pianissimi, all the way to the back row. Also, the role requires tremendous agility; bel canto audiences expected the singers to decorate and ornament their melodies with runs, trills, appogiature ("leaning notes"), and all manner of perfectly placed, beautiful little extra notes.

But the real challenge of singing Norma is that Bellini's melodies are long. Making beautiful music, as opposed to simply singing notes, is all about phrasing, and for singers, that means the placement of breaths. Bellini loved to write beautiful, long, slow melodies that demand enormous lung power and breath control, something akin to swimming two laps underwater.

In addition to all her vocal demands, Norma is no small challenge to an actress. She's a woman with absolute power, treated as a goddess by her community. But she's also a mother, a daughter, a friend, and a lover, restricted and eventually destroyed by her conflicting obligations to the important people in her life. Great Normas are able to convey all that through the voice, while singing Bellini's terrifically challenging music.

The very few sopranos who have left a mark on the role of Norma include Giuditta Pasta, who created the role; Maria Malibran, Bellini's favorite Norma; Rosa Ponselle; Maria Callas; and Joan Sutherland. Another, the incomparable Lilli Lehmann, declared she "would rather sing all three Brünnhildes [in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung] than one Norma."

Historian's Disclaimer

We know very little about the Druids, the priest/magicians who ruled the Gallic and Celtic tribes 2000 years ago. And Bellini and Romani and their contemporaries knew even less. The little we (and they) know about this culture comes from the historians of ancient Rome, who may be entertaining writers but who are unreliable historians. Bellini's Norma is a fairy tale, not a historical drama. For instance, we know nothing about Druidic sexual mores, such as whether it was possible to be a Druid priestess, let alone whether chastity would have been mandatory in such an order. (It seems quite unlikely.)

Chastity was valued, however, by the culture of Bellini's Roman Catholic Italy. Like many a creator of pseudo-historical fiction, Bellini and Romani wrote about their own culture while pretending to write a story about another culture. Think of their Druids as nineteenth-century Italian Catholic nuns in disguise, and the opera's plot will make more sense. They chose an exotic and popular setting and then told a story that would speak directly to their audience.

Despite the lack of reliable information, Europeans in the Romantic period were fascinated by the Druids. One writer, the Scottish poet James Macpherson, even passed off his own forgeries as authentic Celtic poetry by the ancient bard "Ossian." This fascination continues today, in the zillions of King Arthur stories-some Christian, some pagan, all unhistorical-that our novelists and filmmakers are still telling.

Recommended Recordings

London / Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Norma: Joan Sutherland
Adalgisa: Marilyn Horne
Pollione: John Alexander

Gala / Conductor: Antonino Votto
Norma: Maria Callas
Adalgisa: Giulietta Simionato
Pollione: Mario Del Monaco

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