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Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Norma (Bellini)

An Opera by Vincenzo Bellini

Here, again, the libretto is the work of Romani. It has been eulogised as "of great power and beauty; a tragedy which, both in sentiment and diction, contrasts very strongly with the ungrammatical balderdash which composers are so often called upon to set to music."

The scene is laid in Gaul, recently subjugated by the Romans. Norma, high-priestess of the Druids, has been clandestinely married to Pollio, the Roman pro-consul, and has borne him twelve children. Pollio proves unfaithful, having conceived a violent passion for Adalgisa, a young virgin of the temple. She is won by his protestations, and flies with him to Rome; but her conscience smites her, and she makes a full confession to Norma. Norma generously wants to send Adalgisa to Pollio, but Adalgisa refuses the offer; promising instead to bring Pollio back repentant. Pollio, however, embroils the Druids by following Adalgisa into the temple and trying to tear her from the altar. In the struggle he is captured and sentenced to death. Norma magnanimously promises to save him if he will renounce Adalgisa, but he declines. Out of compassion for him, Norma proclaims herself the guilty one and demands to be led to death. This brings Pollio to a sense of her worth and devotion, and the pair mount the funeral pyre together, to be cleansed by fire from earthly sin.

"Norma," first produced in 1831, is a "singing opera" of the old type, but its melodies are broad and sustained rather than florid. They have no pretence to dramatic consistency, but there is real feeling in several of the numbers, especially in Norma’s great prayer, "Casta Diva" (remarkable for its truth and beauty and dignified sweetness), and her farewell to her children at the close. Parts of the opera have, for Bellini, an unexpected fervour and dignity. The orchestration is thin, as it is in all his operas; but Cherubini was right when he said that fuller accompaniments would not improve Bellini’s lovely melodies. Bizet is said to have tried to re-score "Norma," but gave it up as impossible.

It seems to be the general opinion that "Norma" is the work in which Bellini best displayed his gifts. He himself called it "the best of my operas." Rossini admired it; and for a very long period no great singer with any pretence to tragic power considered her claims fully recognized till she succeeded in the part of the Druid priestess. Of this character Pasta was the first notable exponent; later it became one of Grisi’s favourite parts and Titiens also had a fancy for it.

Even Wagner praised the rich flow of the "Norma" melody, adding that "the most determined opponents of the new Italian school of music do this composition the justice of admitting that, speaking to the heart, it shows an inner earnestness of aim." Further, he showed his practical interest by selecting it for his benefit when he was conductor at Riga in 1837. Wagner always spoke highly of Bellini’s light, spontaneous melody. Lord Mount-Edgcumbe, a celebrated connoisseur and admirer of the old school, tells that when "Norma" was first produced in London it "was not liked." However that may have been, it was certainly a good deal liked afterwards.

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