Major Operas | Norma by Vincenzo Bellini | Early Romantic

Norma, Bellini’s eighth opera and his masterpiece, followed hard on the heels of his La sonnambula when its first performance was given at La Scala less than four months later, on 26 December 1831. Once again, Giuditta Pasta created the title role, although this time she had parts of the opera transposed down to the key of F where it catered more comfortably for her mezzo-soprano voice. The role has remained scored in F ever since.

Pasta’s problems – and Bellini’s – did not end there, however. The singer declared that ‘Casta diva’ was ‘ill-adapted to her vocal abilities’ – in other words, the aria was to blame for being ‘impossible’ to sing. Bellini deployed all his diplomatic gifts and told Pasta to practice the aria every morning for a week. Then, if she was still dissatisfied, he would change it. A week later, the composer received a gift from the singer and a confession of shame that she had been ‘little suited to performing your sublime harmonies’. Norma was coolly received at first – ‘the audience was harsh’ Bellini wrote in despair – but they gradually warmed to it. During the 1831–32 season, Norma was performed 39 times and was received with great enthusiasm.

Composed: 1831
Premiered: 1831, Milan
Libretto by Felice Romani, after Alexandre Soumet

Act I

The high priest Oroveso leads the druids to worship at the altar of Irminsul. They are preparing for moonrise, when Oroveso’s daughter, Norma, will lead them in an uprising against the Romans. The Roman pro-consul Pollione enters with his friend Flavio and confesses that he no longer loves Norma, but has discovered a new passion for Adalgisa, a novice priestess. He plans to take her back to Rome and marry her. The druids return; Norma prays to the moon and laments the loss of Pollione’s love. Adalgisa, meanwhile, prays to be released from the bonds of Pollione’s ardour, but he eventually persuades her to flee to Rome with him.

Norma learns that Pollione must return to Rome and she is concerned for the future of the two children she has borne him. She confides in her companion Clotilde that Pollione has another lover, although she does not know her identity. Adalgisa enters, declaring that she is in love and asking Norma for guidance. Norma, bearing in mind her own conduct, is about to allow Adalgisa to revoke her chastity vows when Pollione enters and Norma, realizing he is the object of Adalgisa’s affections, flies into a rage. Adalgisa is equally horrified to learn that Pollione is Norma’s former lover and declares that she would rather die than take him from Norma. The temple gong sounds and Pollione is warned that his death is imminent.

Act II

Norma watches over her sleeping children with a dagger in her hand, tormented by the choice of either killing them or letting Pollione take them to Rome as slaves. She cannot bring herself to carry out the murder and asks...

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