& Body Work
Thoughts on performing Bellini’s Norma
Bellini’s NORMA (1831) is considered one of the pinnacles of the operatic canon both for its extravagant melodic invention, the perfect musical choice for every dramatic moment in its storytelling, as well as for the treacherous challenges of singing its title role.
A pinnacle of bel canto style, its score is organized along traditional numbers opera formal lines. However the extraordinary dramatic reveals Bellini invents for his characters cut more deeply into their core personas and their interactions than in the two equally famous younger bel canto composers Donizetti and Rossini. In my estimation Bellini holds the prize for both the extraordinary primitive force of his operas and at the same time the most sophisticated use of the voice as a dramatic bel canto instrument — something Verdi developed further in the next several decades no doubt stimulated by Bellini — as so many disparate people such as Stendhal and Wagner acknowledged Bellini’s unique gift.
His Norma is one of Opera’s most complex characters — leading her people in religious rites as a Druid Virgin Priestess — and deceitfully holding them from rebelling against their Roman occupiers while at the same time having secretly born and raised the Roman Consul’s two young children.
We at Virginia Opera had the great good fortune for our very first NORMA in 1983 to have the glorious African-American (Black) soprano Joy Simpson (sister to Marietta) as our very commanding leading lady. With a gorgeous voice, infinite technical control, and the most developed musical instincts — and wonderful partners in the young James Schwisow and Mimi Lerner — I was in seventh heaven throughout this production which was brilliantly directed by David Farrar on gleaming mylar mirror sets by Beni Montresor.
NORMA – [Live] October 1983 Performed in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax. Peter Mark conducting the Virginia Symphony. CAST DETAILS Norma - Joy Simpson, Adalgisa - Mimi Lerner , Pollione - James Schwisow, Oroveso - Hugh Givens, Flavio -- Cary Michaels, Clotilde - Rena Caulfield-Monti
Yes the Casta Diva (31:00) is a splendid show piece, but how revolutionary to precede it with such a vigorous and commanding recitative beforehand (26:40) — and to have its cabaletta sung as a private thought (37:33) in this very public scene.
I know the Mira o Norma duet (1:39:32) is more famous but listen here to the first duet (1:03:09) and it’s unfolding. It is pure magic how Adalgisa’s innocent confession stimulates Norma’s remembrance of earlier happier days until it becomes clear that her lover is the same Pollione (1:14:25) as the father of Norma’s children. I think the dramatic integrity and musical propulsion from peace through surprise, anger, confrontation and rebuke in the final trio of that scene is one of the finest dramatic and musical conceptions in the repertoire and it was always thrilling to drive that momentum (1:21:08) through to the end of the act.
Likewise I know of no grander, more sympathetic and empathetic sequence of musical ensembles than the finale of the opera —- as Norma (once again rejected by Pollione) changes course suddenly (2:07:10), confesses her sins in front of the whole community, pleads for her children’s future with her father ((2:16:33), and ascends the fire she lit for the ProConsul — only to be joined by him in the flames!
There really is nothing more moving to work with then these final ensembles (2:17:10) which again advance naturally and gather weight and momentum toward the grandest conclusion at the end of the opera.
Enjoy yourselves and let me know what you liked as well as feeling free to reminding us of the sections you love in other performances.
How many of you have sung in this opera yourselves? Why not share some of your experiences here.