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Operapedia: Norma 

HENRY STEWART burns through the backstory of Bellini’s beloved tragedy.

Operapedia Bellin Cameo lg 715  The Basics

The title’s pagan priestess tries to win back the heart of the Roman soldier who fathered her children, but she fails, stirs her people to war and burns herself to death with him on a sacrificial pyre.


First Performances

Norma had its premiere at La Scala in December 1831. The Met premiere was in 1890, and the house revived the work as recently as 2013, but, with just 156 performances in 125 years, there have been long stretches without it. This is not because Norma comes in and out of fashion but because it awaits divas up to its demands — Rosa Ponselle in the 1920s and ’30s, Maria Callas in the ’50s, Joan Sutherland in the ’70s. It’s “at the very acme of the soprano’s repertory,” Rupert Christiansen wrote in Prima Donna, “rarely sung even competently.” The role’s complexity is a tribute to its originator, Giuditta Pasta, the greatest diva of her day (though some said she quickly lost her pitch control, perhaps from singing too many Normas). She’s not to be confused with pasta alla norma, an eggplant dish supposedly named by a theater director who loved the opera and the meal so much he compared one to the other.

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Time and Place

During his brief career, Bellini defined Italian opera, receiving an unprecedented 12,000 lire for Norma and Beatrice di Tenda. (Imagine what that would have bought in 1830!) Now, though, he’s remembered as just one of several masters of bel canto, the precursor to Verdi’s and especially Wagner’s musically and dramatically weightier works. Still, in 1839, twenty-six-year-old Wagner, suffering from typhoid fever, almost died from leaving his sickbed to conduct Norma; the German nationalist was famously unimpressed by Italian opera, but this was the exception. (Wagner even wrote an aria for Norma, back when composers sometimes did such things.) “Let us not be ashamed to be carried away by the simple nobility and beauty of a lucid melody of Bellini,” he wrote. “Let us not be ashamed to shed a tear of emotion as we hear it!” Mahler also once admitted that parts of Norma made him cry.

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Where It Is This Season

Through the end of the year, seven productions have been announced, from this month in Aachen with Irina Popora to December in Los Angeles with Angela Meade.


Operapedia La Scala Norma lg 715  Reactions

“Fiasco, fiasco, a solemn fiasco!” Bellini wrote of the premiere. “The public was severe; it seemed positively to have come with the express purpose of judging and condemning me…. It has consigned my poor Norma to the doom of the Druidess herself.” But he overreacted; after two more performances, he wrote, “The theater is always full, every evening there is complete silence: the applause is unanimous: if these things indicate a fiasco, then Norma has been a fiasco.” It played La Scala thirty-two more times just that season and received 208 performances before the twentieth century began.


Surprise Showstopper

The Druids are hungry for war with Rome, but Norma keeps them at peace — until Act II’s “Guerra, guerra,” a thunderous battle cry in which her people finally release the rage they’ve kept pent up since before the action onstage even started, electrifying an audience that all evening hasn’t heard such roaring bellicosity. Not that the opera isn’t emotional: Norma’s conflict over whether she should murder her children, “Dormono entrambi,” is intense, but in a more delicate and nuanced way.


In Pop Culture

In “Came the Dawn,” an episode from the fifth season of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, Brooke Shields plays a woman whose truck breaks down in the rain. Her name is Norma — at least, that’s the name she makes up for the business creep (played by Perry King) who gives her a lift, as it’s the CD (Callas at La Scala, 1960) he’s listening to in his car — “one of the greatest operas in the world,” he tells her. Like Wagner and Mahler, he also admits that it makes him sob. The character’s love of bel canto was invented by screenwriter Ron Finley; the 1953 Shock Suspenstories comic on which his script was based makes no mention of opera, let alone a Callas performance that was seven years away.

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Operapedia Callas lg 715  Spoiler Alert

Opera has a long tradition of oppressed peoples voicing their longing to be free, usually as members of a religious minority, from the Hebrew slaves in Nabucco and homesick Aida to The Death of Klinghoffer’s opening choruses. In Norma, it’s Druids under Roman rule, but Norma personalizes this political struggle and reduces it to mere romance, a selfishness that is perhaps her undoing: she betrays her people for love, keeping them in line because she has procreated with the Roman who oversees them, leading them away from or toward war as her fickle heart demands — the same way she plays with the lives of her own children! It seems she’s always either plotting their murder while they sleep or waking them up to announce that’s she dying. (And no Norma ever looked more capable of killing her progeny than Maria Callas.) 


The Performance We Wish We'd Seen

Maria Callas owned the role at midcentury and made many important debuts in the part, each a night to remember — London, in 1953; the U.S., in Chicago, in 1954; and at the Met, in 1956. Not quite a generation later, Joan Sutherland took ownership; her “imperious, unassailable, imposing priestess was one of the glories of opera,” William R. Braun wrote earlier this year in opera news. Her first performance at the Met in the part was on March 3, 1970 — also the Met debut of mezzo Marilyn Horne, as Adalgisa, Norma’s romantic rival and best gal pal. In her autobiography, Horne called Bellini “a supreme melodist.”

 

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HIT TUNE
Norma’s entrance aria, “Casta diva,” a hymn to accompany the offering of the sacred mistletoe (Druids, am I right?), is one of the most famous arias in all of opera. It didn’t come easily — Bellini reportedly wrote eight versions before nailing it, though the whole work went through similar revision: he threw away an entire overture (or “sinfonia”), then wrote the present one from scratch. Bellini is most highly regarded for his melodies, and this aria showcases that gift. Cecilia Bartoli made steam whistle out of many listeners’ ears with her nontraditional rendition of Norma, but her hushed and heavily ornamented performance of this aria is chilling in its self-conscious solemnity.
 

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Something Completely Different

Love or hate Bartoli’s assumption, the 2013 Salzburg production in which she first took on the role was less controversial: everyone agreed it was just plain confusing. Like many directors these days, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier moved their production up to the Nazi era, exchanging occupied Gaul for occupied Paris and turning the Druids into La Résistance. “Why twentieth-century underground fighters would be in awe of a priestess who prays to the moon,” Jörg Von Uthmann wrote in opera news, “remained the secret of the directors.” One could also ask why they speak Italian, if one were being nitpicky. (To psych out the Germans?!) spacer 

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