The Best Italian Opera by Vincenzo Bellini? Norma

Of all the famous operas, for Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini, Norma was his favourite. Interestingly, Vincenzo Bellini operas are experiencing a rebirth in the world of Italian opera music performance.

In most cases, a well written Vincenzo Bellini Norma synopsis focuses on the love triangle. But, to get a better appreciation of the Norma opera plot, an understanding of the social and political situation of the times is essential. Additionally, well written English translations of the original Italian opera lyrics provide for a better appreciation of the best of opera.

In Italian opera the Bellini style of opera is called bel canto. As we listen to opera, we need to remember that his opera Norma – Belini (correct spelling is “Bellini”) considered to be his best opera.

 

Read to Discover Vincenzo Bellini’s Opera Norma

 

Listen to Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma – Opera Music Online:

the high priestess Norma riles the warriors of Gaul to war against the Romans in Act 2, Scene 7 of the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. Performed at the Neuen Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany by the K&K Philharmoniker and K&K Opernchor in April 2007. Norma is performed by soprano Svitlana Monchuk. Conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

 

Norma – The Opera by Vincenzo Bellini

Norma, A Vincenzo Bellini Opera
Norma, A Vincenzo Bellini Opera

Norma is an opera in 2 Acts with music composed by Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835). It is written in the bel canto tradition of Italian opera and is considered to be Bellini’s best opera. Certainly he thought so (see below).

The libretto of the opera Norma was written by Felice Romani (1788 – 1865). It was based on Norma, ou L’Infanticide (Norma, or The Infanticide), a French language dramatic work by Alexandre Soumet (1786/8 – 1845). French language sources tend to place Soumet’s birth in 1786, while English language sources claim 1788.

The 5 Act dramatic tragedy Norma was based on the tradition of various previous literary works:

  • the Greek myth of Medea, a priestess who fell in love with Jason of the Argonauts, who traveled to Asia Minor (present-day Russia around the city of Sochi on the Black Sea coast) to claim the Golden Fleece, and bore him 2 sons which she subsequently murdered in retaliation for his infidelity;
  • the 24 book epic novel Les martyrs (1809) by François René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), in which book 9 and book 10 describe the relationship between Eudorus, the Christian Roman proconsul, and Velleda, the Druid priestess who entices him and then finally throws herself into the waves as he returns to Cymodoce, his original love.

Interestingly, about 10 years previously, Felice Romani had written a libretto with a similar plot line for the little known Italian composer Giovanni Pacini (1796 – 1867). The heroic melodrama La Sacerdotessa d’Irminsul takes place in the 8th century AD in Saxony, the northwest part of present-day Germany, where the main heroine, a pagan priestess falls in love with a general in the occupying army.

The opera Norma by Bellini was first produced on December 26, 1831 at the opera house La Scala in Milan, present-day Italy and was conducted by the Italian conductor Alessandro Rolla (1757 – 1841).

According to David Ewen (1907? – 1985), an Austrian born American musicographer, Vincenzo Bellini once said: “If I were shipwrecked at sea, I would leave all the rest of my operas and try to save Norma.” (Encyclopedia of the Opera, 1955:348).

 

A Synopsis of the Bellini Opera Norma

An Opera Love Triangle in Norma
An Opera Love Triangle in Norma

An opera synopsis of the Vincenzo Bellini opera Norma needs to focus on the opera’s love triangle: Norma (soprano) – Pollione (tenor) – Adalgisa (mezzo-soprano).

Norma, the high priestess of the Druids, is in love with Pollione, the Roman proconsul (see below for an explanation of the political situation. As a Druidess and high priestess, Norma has taken vows of chastity. But, she has broken that solemn promise and secretly borne Pollione two sons.

After years of this clandestine relationship, Pollione has tired of Norma and has cast his interests onto the much younger Adalgisa, another virgin priestess. Norma initially suspects, then confirms her lover’s treachery.

Overcome by passionate emotions, Norma desires revenge. Initially, she contemplates killing her sons, but her motherly love instincts overtake her and she abandons such a strategy. She then decides to use her authority as a priestess to rile her people to rebel against the Romans.

Read a translation of the online opera music you are hearing from Act 2, Scene 7 of Norma by Vincenzo Bellini.

“Guerra, guerra!” in original Italian “Guerra, guerra!” in English translation
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
Norma, che fu? Norma, what happened?
Percosso lo scudo d’Irminsul…. You have struck the shield of Irminsul,
quali alla terra decreti intima? which the earth decrees is sacred.
Norma: Norma:
Guerra, strage, sterminio. War, massacre, extermination.
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
A noi pur dianzi pace s’imponea pel tuo labbro! Up to now, your lips have imposed peace upon us.
Norma: Norma:
Ed ira adesso, And now – anger
armi, furore e morti. arms, fury and death.
Il cantico di guerra alzate, o forti. A mighty song of war.
Guerra, guerra! War, war!
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
Guerra, guerra! Le galliche selve War, war! The forests of Gaul
quante han quercie producon guerrier: have produced many strong warriors.
Norma: Norma:
Guerra, guerra! War, war!
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
qual sul gregge fameliche belve, which will descend on the Romans
sui Romani van essi a cader! like a herd of ravenous beasts!
Norma: Norma:
Sangue, sangue! Vendetta! Blood, blood! Revenge!
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
Sangue, sangue! Le galliche scuri Blood, blood! It will bathe the tree trunks
fino al tronco bagnate ne son…. through the force of the Gaul’s axes.
Norma: Norma:
Guerra, guerra! War, war!
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
Sovra flutti del Ligeri impuri Over the waves of the impure Loire
ei gorgoglia con funebre suon! and gurgle with a deathly sound.
Norma: Norma:
Guerra, guerra! War, war!
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
Strage, strage, sterminio, vendetta! Massacre, slaughter, extermination, vengeance!
già comincia, si compie, s’affretta: it has begun, it is accomplished – quick:
Norma: Norma:
Sangue, sangue! Vendetta! Blood, blood! Revenge!
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
come biade da falci mietute as fodder is harvested by sickles
son di Roma le schiere cadute! so, the armies of Rome fall.
Norma: Norma:
Strage, strage! Massacre, massacre!
Oroveso e Coro: Oroveso and Choir:
Tronchi i vanni, recisi gli artigli. The trunks, the claws out
abbattuta ecco l’aquila al suol! the demolished eagle lies on the ground!
A mirare il trionfo de’ figli Our aim is the triumph of our children
ecco il Dio sovra un raggio di sol…. so they can bask in the rays of God’s sun.

As the opera progresses, Norma abandons her desire for revenge. Instead, she asks Oroveso, her father, to take care of her children and offers herself as a sacrifice to atone for breaking her vows of chastity.

In the final moments of the opera, the cheating Pollione has a dramatic change of heart and joins her. Together, Pollione and Norma approach the burning pyre.

 

The Opera Plot of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Politics in 19thC Italy

Bellini’s Norma Plot is Political
Bellini’s Norma Plot is Political

The opera plot of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma should rightly be viewed from the perspective of the political situation of the day. Artists and cultural industry advocates sometimes claim that culture and politics do not mix. History shows us that this is simply not true! During Bellini’s time, opera and politics were very much intertwined.

The Vincenzo Bellini opera Norma takes place in 50 BC in Gaul (present-day Western Europe) during the time of Roman rule. The local population are a Celtic people who are led by their religious leaders, the Druids. Since the area is part of the Roman Empire, the area is administered by a Roman proconsul, appointed by the Roman Senate with the authority to enact legislation, commission and supervise building projects and oversee legal proceedings.

Today we refer to Vincenzo Bellini as a famous Italian composer, Felice Romani as an Italian librettist, Guiditta Pasta, who created the first Norma, as a great Italian singer. However, in making such statements of national allegiance, we need to be aware that at the time when all these artists lived, Italy, as a state, did not exist.

Bellini spent most of his life in what today we would call Italy. But, in his time, he actually lived under different authorities and regimes – in the Kingdom of Sicily (1801 – 1818), Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1818 – 1826), the Napoleonic Republic and later the Italian province of the Hapsburg Empire (1827 – 1833).

During Vincenzo Bellini’s lifetime, the Italians were going through an awakening of national counsciousness which became known as the Risorgimento. Much of this movement was conducted among the educated Italian elite – quietly and consistently.

In the opera, as high priestess of the Gallic Druids, Norma, maintains peace between her people, the Gauls, and their hated conquerors, the Romans. The captive Gauls are looking forward to the day when they will overthrow their Roman rulers. Quietly and patiently they wait! (“Non partì!”)

Listen to opera music online:

the Gallic warriors from Act 2, Scene 4 of the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. Performed at the Neuen Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany by the K&K Philharmoniker and K&K Opernchor. Conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

Read a translation done for this website:

Non partì!” in original Italian Non partì!” in English translation
Non partì! Do not go!
Finora è al campo. For the time being, it is far to the field.
Tutto il dice: i feri carmi, All say: the crimson wounds,
il fragor dell’armi il suon, the war, the sound of weapons,
il suon dell’armi, the clang of battle,
dell’insegne il ventilar. the banners flapping in the breeze.
Un breve inciampo, A small obstacle,
non ci turbi, non ci arresti; does not disturb us, does not stop us.
Attendiam; attendiam; We wait, we wait;
Un breve inciampo A small obstacle,
non ci turbi, non ci arresti; does not disturb us, does not stop us;
E in silenzio il cor s’appresti And in silence, the heart prepares
la grand’opra a consumar! to perfect the great deed.

Disguised as struggles taking place in ancient Greece or Rome, the ideas of liberation from the control of foreign powers were present in many Italian operas of the early 19thC. As opera houses became places were politics was discussed and political were formed, opera themes moved from classical love stories to disguised portrayals of the human struggles for dignity and self-determination.

In 2016, the English National Opera (ENO) mounted a production of Norma by Vincenzo Bellini and developed what Matthew Rye called “a sensational marketing campaign” (new window will open). The slogan was “community in crisis” placing the emphasis not on the love triangle story, but on the socio-political circumstances of the plot.

Ironically, in Norma it is the Romans, whom today we consider to be the ancestors of present-day Italians, who are the conquerors and the Gauls, who live in a remote location in a distant era, who personify the political struggles going on in the Empires of 19thC Europe.

 

Famous Female Opera Singers Perform Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma

Famous Opera Singers in Norma
Famous Opera Singers in Norma

Famous female opera singers consider the operatic character of Norma to be an extremely difficult role for the soprano voice due to its bel canto vocal demands and highly charge emotional scenes.

The Italian opera singer, Giuditta Pasta (1797 – 1865), whose full name was Guiditta Angiola Maria Constanza Pasta, was the creator of the first Norma. Using the word “creator” is not an exaggeration.

At the beginning of the 19th century, when Vincenzo Bellini was composing, operas were written and performed in a very short time span. David R.B. Kimbell in the Cambridge Opera Handbook series claims that in an eight year period around 1845 (10 years after Vincenzo Bellini’s death), 342 new operas were written, composed and produced in the various opera houses of present-day Italy.

In such a mass produced market, operas were usually written for specific performers and audiences. As a result, not only were opera singers constantly learning new roles and performing them with little prior rehearsal. Due to time-constraints, they, together with the composers who wrote the music, became co-creators of the arias and duets.

Giudita Pasta was considered by many to be the ultimate opera diva of the beginning of the 19thC. Famous female opera singer Maria Callas (1923 – 1977) has often been given that title for the mid 20thC. Indeed, 117 years after the creation of the first Norma, Maria Callas added it to her repertoire in November/December 1948. This was followed by 89 performances and 2 studio recordings as Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.

More recently in 2011, Sondra Radvanovsky (b.1969), who resides in Toronto, Canada added the role of Norma to her repertoire, when she performed it at the Teatro Campoamor de Oviedo in Spain. In an interview with Vivien Schweitzer published in the New York Times on April 19, 2011, the role of Norma was for “Ms. Radavanovsky described as her ‘perfect role’ vocally and temperamentally.” (a new window will open)

Cecilia Bartoli (b.1966), an Italian opera singer, has recently released a recording of Norma, which has been reinterpreted using orchestral instruments from the time Vincenzo Bellini composed his opera.

Text and translation by Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych

 

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