Opera – Norma
Norma is a tragedia lirica or opera in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani after Norma, ossia L’infanticidio (Norma, or The Infanticide) by Alexandre Soumet. First produced at La Scala on December 26, 1831, it is generally regarded as an example of the supreme height of the bel canto tradition. “Casta diva” was one of the most familiar arias of the nineteenth century.
In a letter dated September 1, 1831, Bellini wrote to the soprano Giuditta Pasta that “Romani believes [that this subject] will be very effective, and absolutely ideal for your encyclopedic character, because that is the kind of character Norma has”. Indeed, Pasta’s vocal and dramatic range was encyclopedic: that March, she had created the very different Bellini role of Amina, the lyrically vulnerable Swiss village maiden, in La sonnambula.
In the 19th century, it was common for composers to interpolate arias of their own into other composers’ operas. Richard Wagner wrote an aria for bass and men’s chorus for an 1837 production of Norma.
The title role is generally considered one of the most difficult in the soprano repertoire. It calls for tremendous vocal control of range, flexibility, and dynamics. It contains a wide range of emotions: conflict of personal and public life, romantic life, maternal love, friendship, jealousy, murderous intent, and resignation. German soprano Lilli Lehmann once famously remarked on how the singing of all three Brünnhildes in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in one evening was less stressful than the singing of one Norma. However, her less famous reasoning was that “When you sing Wagner, you are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene that you do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself. But in Bellini, you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct emission.”