Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, the crown jewel of Bel Canto operas, premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on December 28, 1831 to an unenthusiastic reception. Following the path of other famous opening night fiascos (Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Sivilglia, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Verdi’s La Traviata come to mind,) the opera’s importance was recognized after its second performance, and the story of the Druid Priestess who falls in love with the enemy quickly established itself as part of the international repertoire. Last week, the opera premiered at Tulsa Opera for the first time in the company’s 63-year history, led by conductor Kostis Protopapas, with a cast headed by Brenda Harris as Norma. That the company has waited this long to premiere such an important work is indicative of the difficulty in conscientiously finding an appropriate exponent; one capable of bringing forth the classic qualities needed to make Norma an extraordinary musical event. Based on reviews following the opening night presentation on Saturday April 30th, it would seem that all was worth the wait.
A discussion of Norma cannot be complete without an assessment of the role’s creator, the soprano Giuditta Pasta. Certainly, she was not the first Prima Donna to set the musical world aflame. To be sure, her path was paved by a vast array of stars who claimed the title of “Queen of Song” before her. A summarized timeline of the female singer as a substantial star can be traced back to 18th century, where the names of Augusta Faustina and Francesca Cuzzoni managed to push themselves forward despite the unsurpassable competition afforded by the castrato dominated baroque era. As the over-ornate school of the baroque gave way to classicism, singers such as Brigitta Banti, Mara, Catarina Cavalieri , and Nancy Storace, continued to represent the standard of the prima donna through the music of Gluck and Mozart. When the musical world shifted towards romanticism, the mammoth star of Angelica Catalani virtually took over musical Europe, though history remembers her as a frivolous, unmusical singer able to create a supreme impression by the sheer perfection of her vocal endowments. All of these singers were brought to prominence through the bounty of their vocal resources, and it was this musical climate that greeted Giuditta Pasta in the nineteenth century, yet her art was created from a different mold. Born in Italy in 1797, she was the possessor of an unimportant mezzo-soprano instrument which she rendered manageable up to the soprano range of C# and D’s through a masochistic work ethic. At the age of 19, she made her debut in Paris at the Theatre-Italiens and also tried her luck in London, but failed to inspire much notice. She returned to Italy with her husband and continued her professional career in provincial companies, all the while continually working on her technique. In 1821 she gave Paris a second try and returned with the great Rossini vehicles of Desdemona, Elisabetta and Tancredi under her belt. She was hailed as a revelation. Not satisfied with her newfound stardom, she returned to London in 1824 and set the city on fire in the title role of Rossini’s Semiramide. To a musical world ready to move past the overtly ornamented style of the castrati and Angelina Catalani, Pasta represented a new brand of grandeur. Vocally, her pedigree was suspect: Describing her voice, the French critic Pierre Scudo noticed: “Her thick, muffled, mezzo-soprano voice was with great difficulty rendered supple, and Mme. Pasta never was completely mistress of this rebellious organ.” Yet she used her shortcomings to her advantage and turned her endowment into an expressive musical instrument. For instance, once Pasta arrived to a musical truth in ornament or cadence, it was seldom modified or deviated from in future presentations. She was also renowned for the dramatic truth in her deportment, and was called “the Siddons of the opera”. The famous actor Francois-Joseph Talma was impressed: “One turn of her beautiful head, one glance of her eye, one light motion of her hand, is with her sufficient to express a passion.” To the musical world of Chorley and Stendhal, Pasta represented operatic truth in its highest form, and her artistic idiosyncrasies are most similar to those of Maria Callas in recent times. Despite these accolades, not everyone was convinced. Though she championed the music of Rossini, it cannot be said that the genius of Pesaro was fond of her art (he greatly preferred her rival Maria Malibran, and never tailored a role for Pasta). As it turned out, Pasta’s talent needed the modern style of Donizetti and Bellini to realize its true promise. It was Donizetti who first capitalized on this new style of declamation by writing for her the leading role in his Anna Bolena. Bellini followed suit, and wrote the bucolic role of Amina in his La Sonnambula with her voice in mind. But it was in their second collaboration, Norma, that hindsight has come to recognize the culmination of Pasta’s musico-dramatic talents in their full realization. If anything, it secured Pasta’s position as the lyric stage’s foremost representative of the romantic school.
Unfortunately for Pasta, her time in the operatic throne was short lived. She championed Norma everywhere, but the role’s requirements exhausted her resources. By the time she toured the role in London in 1833, the trailblazing repertoire had taken a permanent toll upon the voice, and her intonation was found wanting beyond the point of decency. She retired from the stage soon afterwards. Norma continued to spread like wildfire across 19th century Europe championed by such operatic pillars as the celebrated Maria Malibran , Giulia Grisi, Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, Adelaide Kemple and Pauline Viardot, yet to the public and critics, Pasta’s interpretation remained the ideal Norma. That Pasta was no longer before the public further impressed this concept upon the new generation of musicians who had not heard the great lady in person. Their chance came in 1850, when the aged soprano, penniless due to some unlucky investments, was lured back from retirement to offer scenes of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in concert form. All members of the audience, comprised of luminary artists and nostalgic operatic queens of the “not what it used to be” variety (ie: my people), all agreed that the singer’s decision to appear before the public again was ill advised. She was badly aged and a vocal shadow of her former self. Yet, as the evening progressed, she was found to rally a bit, and flashes of the legendary voice were heard again in the final scene. A famous observation from a great artist in the audience was recorded, and though the story has been told many times, I find it fitting to repeat it again. The famous critic Henry Fothergill Chorley was was sitting next to the then reigning contralto Pauline Viardot, and he managed to overhear her remarks to a friend: “You are right, it is like the Cenacolo of Da Vinci at Milan: A wreck of a picture, but the picture is the greatest picture in the world!”
So why is this opera so hard? The role demands a singer able to conjure untold stamina, teutonic range, the gamut of dynamics and musical skills to satisfy the intricacies that the score calls upon to portray the extreme emotions of this extraordinary character. The opera takes place in 50 B.C. The Romans have occupied Gaul, and the atmosphere is, to be sure, tense. The Druid priestess Norma has fallen in love with the Roman proconsul Pollione and secretly bore him two children. In the interim, Pollione has grown bored with Norma and seduced a younger priestess, Adalgisa. We learn this from Pollione as he explains this to his centurion Flavio, and they leave the stage as a gathering of Druids calling for Norma are heard from the distance. Norma enters. She is beseeched by her people to strike against the Roman threat, but she calms their demands by the strength of her sheer personality. From the outset, the singer must summon heroic tone in the dramatic recitative “Sediziose voci” and then lead the Druids into a trance by way of the unending sustained melodic lines of her famous prayer “Casta Diva.” Having successfully appeased her clan, Norma caps her introductory discourse with a private, womanly yearning for Pollione via a brilliant cabaletta “Ah bello a me ritorna.” And this is just the beginning.
A dramatic exchange between Norma and her servant Clotilde introduces the second scene in the first act. Norma is faced with the reality of her children, and what their very existence means to her condition. Adalgisa enters, and here we have the first of the two celebrated duets for the two sopranos. Adalgisa confesses to Norma that she has hopelessly fallen in love with a man, and hopes that Norma will release her from her vows. Hearing this confession, Norma recalls a time when her love for Pollione first blossomed. Sympathetic of Adalgisa’s plight, Norma releases her from her vows. Bellini makes great request of both singers, asking for intricate use of agility in long, sustained melodic lines as Norma first punctuates Adalgisa’s phrases, and then the voices join together in unisom:
Following this idyllic scene, Pollione enters and Adalgisa announces him as the man she loves. A furious Norma lashes out in flights of heroic coloratura against Pollione, more deeply so as Pollione open asserts that he will leave Norma for Adalgisa. Norma follows with accusations, threats, and warnings to Adalgisa, the expected reaction of a woman shunned, though made the more terrifying in the knowledge that she can indeed carry out these deeds, in the extended ensemble starting with “Ah non tremare” which closes the first act. As the act ends, an off-stage congregation of Druids calls for Norma, further emphasizing the tragedy of Norma’s personal and public plights. It is no wonder that the greatest of Normas will cap the scene with an optional high D, sung here by Tulsa’s Norma, Brenda Harris.
As the curtain opens on act two, we find Norma contemplating matricide in an unprecedented stretch of dramatic recitative “Domono entrambi”. She wavers, finds the strength to perform the unspeakable deed, but ultimately recoils from it. Adalgisa joins her and Norma asks for her help: “Take my children with you”, she says. In the second of the celebrated duets, “Mira o Norma,” the younger priestess convinces Norma that the children must remain with her mother, and that she, Adalgisa, will convince Pollione to return to Norma. Bellini joins the voices in thirds as they ascend in flights of coloratura to the highest reaches of their range.
Following a ten-minute stretch where Norma’s father Oroveso addresses the Druid people, Norma returns to the stage for the remaining opera. It may be this long final stretch towards the end of the opera that separates the Gods from the mortals, as Bellini’s score continue to take a toll upon the singer’s stamina, yet the teutonic requirements do not ease up until the final curtain falls. Hopeful of Pollione’s change of heart, Norma is allowed one scene of wistful happiness as she imagines the repentant Pollione returning to her arms (Ei tornera). News arrive that Pollione has stormed the temple and kidnapped Adalgisa. A now furious Norma calls upon the Druids to strike in open warfare against the Romans in the dramatic scene “Guerra, guerra!” Vocally, Norma comes out swinging and Bellini requires two solid High Cs, once in the moment of ethereal joy, and the next in the midst of the storm created by the act of vengeance and punctuated by a terrifying downward scale to the low F. Pasta must have been a monster.
The Druids drag in Pollione and Norma requests to meet with him in private. What follows is a fascinating exchange between the former lovers, “In mia man, alfin tu sei” (At last, you are in my hands), which greatly resembles the scene between Amneris and Radames in Act four of Verdi’s Aida in its construction and tone (though Norma predates Verdi’s opera by forty years and certainly the style of declamation is quiet different). Norma uses every card in her hand to convince Pollione to leave Adalgisa. She threatens his life, the life of Adalgisa, the people of Rome and even implies that the blade will not spare her own children. Bellini makes a new, cruel request of the singer by dictating a series of trills on the low register to reflect Norma’s burning fury, but it is no use: Pollione wishes to die instead of remaining by her side.
Norma gathers the Druids around to reveal the name of the priestess who has broken her vows and betrayed her people. Before she announces Adalgisa’s name, she realizes that she cannot accuse Adalgisa of the crime she herself has committed, and to the shock of the horrified crowd, she names herself as the culprit. Then follows two concertatos sequences that close the opera. In the first, “Qual cor tradisti”, Norma addresses Pollione in front of her shocked congregation, in full knowledge that they will both die by the words she says, yet she speaks only to him. “A fate stronger than you wills us together, and in the same fire that consumes me, I shall be with you.” Aware of the extraordinary woman he has until now taken for granted, Pollione’s love for Norma finally reawakens.
Having resolved her duties to her people, Norma is ready to face her death, but not before leaving provisions for her children. She confesses to her father, Oroveso, that she’s a mother, and begs him to take his grandchildren with him. He first refuses her, but is soon moved by her situation and relents. In the final concertato sequence, “Deh non volerli vittime”, Norma and Pollione are led to the sacrifical pyre, and Norma looks to her father and declaims the chilling words “Ah, you forgive me, your tears have told me. I ask no more, I am happy.” Again, Brenda Harris:
Bellini’s Norma premiered last Saturday April 30th at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, and based on the reviews following the opening night, it is an event not to be missed. I know I’m not. Great Normas are few and far between, and I am traveling from Atlanta to see the last two performances, which are scheduled to take place on Friday May 6th at 7:30 pm and Sunday May 8th at 2:30 pm. For tickets, please contact the box office at (918) 587-4811 or (866) 298-2530. For more information about Norma and the Tulsa Opera Company, please visit: http://www.tulsaopera.com/