Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Norma (Bellini) - Synopsis
Norma - Synopsis
An Opera by Vincenzo Bellini
Opera in two acts, by Bellini; words by Felice Romani, based on an old French story. Produced, December 26, 1831, Milan. Kings Theatre, June 20, 1833, in Italian; Drury Lane, June 24, 1837, in English. Paris, Théâtre des Italiens, 1833. New York, February 25, 1841, at the Park Theatre; October 2, 1854, for the opening of the Academy of Music, with Grisi, Mario, and Susini; December 19, 1891, Metropolitan Opera House, with Lilli Lehmann as Norma.
POLLIONE, Roman Pro-consul in Gaul
OROVESO, Archdruid, father of Norma
NORMA, High-priestess of the Druidical temple of Esus
ADALGISA, a virgin of the temple
CLOTILDA, Normas confidante
FLAVIUS, a centurion
Priests, Officers of the Temple, Gallic Warriors, Priestesses and Virgins of the Temple, and Two Children of Norma and Pollione.
Time: Roman Occupation, about 50 B.C.
Act I. Sacred grove of the Druids. The high priest Oroveso comes with the Druids to the sacred grove to beg of the gods to rouse the people to war and aid them to accomplish the destruction of the Romans. Scarcely have they gone than the Roman Pro-consul Pollione appears and confides to his Centurion, Flavius, that he no longer loves Norma, although she has broken her vows of chastity for him and has borne him two sons. He has seen Adalgisa and loves her.
At the sound of the sacred instrument of bronze that calls the Druids to the temple, the Romans disappear. The priest and priestesses approach the altar. Norma, the high priestess, daughter of Oroveso, ascends the steps of the altar. No one suspects her intimacy with the Roman enemy. But she loves the faithless man and therefore seek to avert the danger that threatens him, should Gaul rise against the Romans, by prophesying that Rome will fall through its own weakness, and declaring that it is not yet the will of the gods that Gaul shall go to war. She also prays to the "chaste goddess" for the return of the Roman leader, who has left her. Another priestess is kneeling in deep prayer. This is Adalgisa, who also loves Pollione.
The scene changes and shows, Normas dwelling. The priestess is steeped in deep sadness, for she knows that Pollione plans to desert her and their offspring, although she is not yet aware of her rivals identity. Adalgisa comes to her to unburden her heart to her superior. She confesses that to her faith she has become untrue through love -- and love for a Roman. Norma, thinking of her own unfaithfulness to her vows, is about to free Adalgisa from hers, when Pollione appears. Now she learns who the beloved Roman of Adalgisa is. But the latter turns from Pollione. She loves Norma too well to go away with the betrayer of the high-priestess.
Act II. Norma, filled with despair, is beside the cradle of her little ones. An impulse to kill them comes over her. But motherhood triumphs over unrequited love. She will renounce her lover. Adalgisa shall become the happy spouse of Pollione, but shall promise to take the place of mother to her children. Adalgisa, howver, will not hear of treachery to Norma. She goes to Pollione, but only to remind him of his duty.
The scene changes again to a wooded region of the temple in which the warriors of Gaul have gathered. Norma awaits the result of Adalgisas plea to Pollione; then learns that she has failed and has come back to the grove to pass her life as a priestess. Normas wrath is now beyond control. Three times she strikes the brazen shield; and, when the warriors have gathered, they joyfully hear her message: War against the Romans! But with their deep war song now mingles the sound of tumult from the temple. A Roman has broken into the sacred edifice. He has been captured. It is Pollione, who she knows has sought to carry of Adalgisa. The penalty for his intrusion is death. But Norma, moved by love to pity, and still hoping to save her recreant lover, submits a new victim to the enraged Gauls -- a perjured virgin of the priesthood.
"Speak, then, and name her!" they cry.
To their amazement she utters her own name, then confesses all to her father, and to his care confides her children.
A pyre has been erected. She mounts it, but not alone. Pollione, his love rekindled at the spectacle of her greatness of soul, joins her. In the flames he, too, will atone for their offence before God.
The ambition of every dramatic soprano of old was to don the robes of a priestess, bind her brow with the mystic vervain, take in her hand a golden sickle, and appear in the sacred grove of the Druids, there to invoke the chaste goddess of the moon in the famous "Casta diva." Prima donnas of a later period found further inspiration thereto in the beautiful portrait of Grisi as Norma. Perhaps the last to yield to the temptation was Lilli Lehmann, who, not content with having demonstrated her greatness as Brunnhilde and Isolde, desired in 1891, to demonstrate that she was also a great Norma a demonstration which did not cause her audience to become unduly demonstrative. The fact is, it would be difficult to revive successfully "Norma" as a whole, although there is not the slighted doubt that "Casta diva, che in argenti" (Chaste goddess, may thy silver beam), is one of the most exquisite gems of Italian song.
It is followed immediately by "Ah! bello a me ritorna" (Beloved, return unto me), which being an allegro, contrasts effectively with the long, flowing measures of "Casta diva."
Before this in the opera there has occurred another familiar number, the opening march and chorus of the Druids, "Dell aura tua profetica" (With thy prophetic oracle).
There is a fine trio for Norma, Adalgisa, and Pollione, at the end of the first act, "Oh! di qual sei tu vittima" (O, how his art deceived you).
In the scene between Norma, and Adalgisa, in the second act, is the duet, "Mira, O, Norma!" (Hear me, Norma)
Among the melodious passages in the opera, this is second in beauty only to "Casta diva."