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Opera Essentials: Bellini’s Norma

Our quick introduction to Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

5 September 2016 at 11.58am | 5 Comments

The story begins…

The priestess Norma has had an illicit affair with Pollione, an officer in the forces occupying her land, and has had two children by him. Pollione has now tired of Norma and taken up with the younger priestess Adalgisa. Meanwhile, Norma’s people cry out for rebellion against the occupying forces. Will Norma take revenge on Pollione, and will her people discover her secret?

A clever composite

Norma is based on the verse tragedy of the same name by the French poet Alexandre Soumet. Bellini’s librettist Romani also referred to a range of other sources, including Chateaubriand’s novel Les Martyrs, Jouy’s libretto for Spontini’s opera La Vestale, and his own librettos for two other operas dealing with infanticide and ancient religions: Medea in Corinto and La sacerdotessa d’Irminsul. Bellini played a key role in the construction of the libretto for Norma and was instrumental in devising the opera’s dramatic and romantic final scene, entirely his and Romani’s invention.

Long, long melodies

Bellini’s gift for writing ‘long, long melodies’ (as described by Verdi) is finely expressed in Norma, particularly in the heroine’s Act I aria ‘Casta diva’, one of the most famous of soprano arias. The opera also contains some of Bellini’s most emotionally potent duets, including the Act II duets ‘Mira, o Norma’ for Norma and Adalgisa and ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ for Norma and Pollione.

An opera conceived for star singers

The cast of Norma at its premiere in Milan in December 1831 included two of the greatest sopranos of Bellini’s day – Giuditta Pasta as Norma and Giulia Grisi  as Adalgisa. Subsequently, Norma has been a defining role for many distinguished sopranos, including Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas, who made a sensational Covent Garden debut as Norma in 1952.

A contemporary heroine

Àlex Ollé sets Norma’s story in a contemporary society in which religion and political power have become the same thing. Norma is trapped between her personal desires and the constraints and conventions of her society, and forced to choose between being true to herself or defending her religion and complying with its social demands. Her eventual actions can be seen as a defence of the individual’s freedom, and a denouncement of intolerance.

Norma runs 12 September–8 October 2016. Tickets are still available, and every Friday from Friday 9 September to Friday 7 October inclusive further tickets will be made available through Friday Rush.

The production is a co-production with Opéra national de Paris and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE and The Tsukanov Family Foundation.

This article has 5 comments

  1. Brian Green responded on 9 September 2016 at 3:21pm Reply

    Norma wa spoiled for me and others I spoke to by the distracting rabbit cartoon running through Act 2 scene 1. Couldn't Norma turn it of when she comes home? The kids aren't watching it and it makes it impossible to focus on the very dramatic action and singing that was my reason for coming to the opera.

  2. Robert Avery responded on 9 September 2016 at 5:38pm Reply

    Oh come on. A very realistic touch (I thought it was the Watership Down cartoon). But surely what happens in a dress rehearsal stays in the dress rehearsal. Btw we were blown away by the production and the performance. Not a dry eye in our part of the house.

  3. Edwin Gruber responded on 9 September 2016 at 11:23pm Reply

    Brilliant, thought-provoking and emotionally charged production and absolutely outstanding singing from all principals and particularly from Sonya Yoncheva. Not a dry eye in our part of the house, either. This was opera at its very best. I look forward to the first night on Monday.

  4. Jean Reynolds responded on 10 September 2016 at 8:16am Reply

    A wonderful performance, not a dry eye where I was sitting as well. The singing was transcendent joy! The ROH will surely have a hit with this new Norma; (the first Bellini opera I have seen so what a one to start with).

    The rabbit film was definitely Watership Down which got me thinking which is always a good sign for a new production; why have this on the TV? perhaps because it is a story about suffering and endurance, subjugation and betrayal, as is the story of Norma. However I was puzzled by the Christian imagery, all those Crucifixes making up the trees but very cleverly done. Hopefully when the reviews come out next week I will receive some answers.

    • Miriam responded on 13 September 2016 at 12:05pm

      At the Insight Evening the directors said that although the imagery was taken from Christianity because that was "familiar" it was not really meant to be any specific religion. The scenery made of lots of crucifixes was inspired by the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. I was also at the rehearsal and to me a lot of it was not merely Christian but very specifically Roman Catholic, which did not really make sense with female priests. The Insight was filmed and I believe is now available on YouTube, the part with the directors was about the last quarter hour.

      What I want to know is, at the end when a single shot was heard who had been shot and by whom? Most of the stage was so dark and crowded, the only person I could identify was Oroveso and if it was him I was not looking at him at the time.

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