Bellini’s Norma

Event: Bellini’s Norma
Date: October 7, 2017, 12:55 pm
Run Time: 3 hours 4 minutes
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for Normaper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for Normaper student • $11.00 online


Gaul, 50 BCE, during the Roman occupation. In a forest at night, the priest Oroveso leads the Druids in a prayer for revenge against the conquering Romans. After they have left, the Roman proconsul Pollione admits to his friend Flavio that he no longer loves the high priestess Norma, Oroveso’s daughter, with whom he has two children. He has fallen in love with a young novice priestess, Adalgisa, who returns his love (“Meco all’altar di Venere”). Flavio warns him against Norma’s anger. The Druids assemble and Norma prays to the moon goddess for peace (“Casta diva”). She tells her people that as soon as the moment for their uprising against the conquerors arrives, she herself will lead the revolt. At the same time, she realizes that she could never harm Pollione. When the grove is deserted, Adalgisa appears and asks for strength to resist Pollione. He finds her crying and urges her to flee with him to Rome. She agrees to renounce her vows (Duet: “Vieni in Roma, ah! vieni, o cara”).

Norma tells her confidante Clotilde that Pollione has been recalled to Rome. She is afraid that he will desert her and their children. Adalgisa confesses to Norma that she has a lover (Duet: “Sola, furtiva, al tempio”). Recalling the beginning of her own love affair, Norma is about to release Adalgisa from her vows and asks for the name of her lover. As Pollione appears, Adalgisa answers truthfully. Norma’s kindness turns to fury. She tells Adalgisa about her own betrayal by the Roman soldier. Pollione confesses his love for Adalgisa and asks her again to come away with him, but she refuses and vows she would rather die than steal him from Norma (Trio: “Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima”).

Norma, dagger in hand, tries to bring herself to murder her children in their sleep to protect them from living disgracefully without a father (“Teneri, teneri figli”). She changes her mind and summons Adalgisa, advising her to marry Pollione and take the children to Rome. Adalgisa refuses: she will go to Pollione, but only to persuade him to return to Norma. Overcome by emotion, Norma embraces her, and the women reaffirm their friendship (Duet: “Mira, o Norma”).
The Druids assemble at their altar to hear Oroveso’s announcement that a new commander will replace Pollione. Oroveso rages against the Roman oppression, but tells the Druids that they must be patient to ensure the success of the eventual revolt (“Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno”).

Norma is stunned to hear from Clotilde that Adalgisa’s pleas have not persuaded Pollione, and in a rage she urges her people to attack the conquerors. Oroveso demands a sacrificial victim, and just then Pollione is brought in, having profaned the sanctuary. Alone with him, Norma promises him his freedom if he will leave Adalgisa and return to her (Duet: “In mia man alfin tu sei”). When he refuses, Norma threatens to kill him and their children, and to punish Adalgisa. She calls in the Druids and tells them that a guilty priestess must die, then confesses that she is referring to herself. Moved by her nobility, Pollione asks to share her fate. Norma begs Oroveso to watch over her children, then leads her lover to the pyre.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

“If I were shipwrecked, I would leave all of my other operas and try to save Norma.” – Vincenzo Bellini

The “bel canto” school of Italian opera flourished in the first third of the 19th century, concurrent with the height of the Romantic movement in literature, painting, and philosophy. The term, which means simply “beautiful singing,” was applied only retrospectively, starting later in the century. Its major composers were Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. The emphasis in these operas was on melody and vocal display. The finest of them have always remained in the standard repertory, but the genre itself fell into disrepute as later composers (Verdi, Wagner) and styles (notably “verismo”) supplanted it. Bel canto operas were dismissed as “concerts in costume,” devoid of dramatic value or musical substance. A bel canto revival began in the mid-twentieth century, spurred by the technical dazzle and vocal power of such singers as Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, and especially Maria Callas, who showed that these works require real acting as well as bel canto. Since then there have been plenty of singers who can do them justice, and many neglected operas by these three composers have been brought to light. (Fewest, alas, by Bellini, who died at age 34.)

Norma is generally judged the summit of the bel canto repertory. The libretto, adapted by Bellini’s favorite collaborator Felice Romani from a French play, reminds us of the story of Medea. (In that story and the French source, the mother actually does kill her children.) The word most often invoked to describe it is “noble.” Norma and Adalgisa are two of the most challenging roles in opera. A singer aspiring to the title role may spend her whole career preparing for it. The other one, traditionally taken by a mezzo-soprano, is within soprano range, and at the premiere was sung by a soprano. Their duet “Mira, O Norma” and Norma’s aria “Casta Diva” are two of the greatest numbers in the operatic canon.

The premiere performance (La Scala, Milan, 26 December 1831) was a flop. Then, from the second through every subsequent performance that season — 39 of them! — a smash hit. Norma came to the U.S. in 1841, in Philadelphia, sung in English: a double premiere, in two different theaters on the same night.

For many opera fanatics, bel canto is what it’s all about. If you’re among them, rejoice.  You’re in the right place.