There’s a moment in Bellini’s Norma that never fails to punch me in the gut. As the opera reaches its final ensemble, the Druid High Priestess Norma, who by now has confessed her crimes to her people and has accepted her fate, turns to her father and tells him that she has borne children with the enemy and begs for their lives. After some vacillation, her father agrees, and Norma says “Ah, tu perdoni, quel pianto il dice! Io piu non chiedo, io son felice!” (You forgive me, your tears have told me. I want nothing more, I am happy). From the pit, Bellini’s orchestra provides a steady pulse that delicately sweeps at the structure, like the tide slowly washing away the majestic sand castle he has spent over two hours building, and over this a melancholy figure rises in the woodwind section as the father forgives his child and acquiesces: It doubles as a gesture of forgiveness and redemption while also signaling the tragic denouement of this extraordinary woman. In the rare instances that I have had the pleasure of experiencing Norma live, this scene has invariably inspired the tears to stream clear past the cheek, and it was no exception last Sunday October 21 when North Carolina Opera mounted a concert performance of the Bellini masterpiece. During the curtain calls, the lady sitting next to me, who had been rather talkative and kept zippering and un-zippering her purse during the entire affair, turned to me and said:
“I saw you crying…it really hit you, didn’t it?”
“You must have liked it a lot”
With an awkward grimace I replied: “You can hum this music and it will make me happy.”
And this is true. Yet further scrutiny reveals complications.