If you live in occupied territory, your choices are limited: collaborate or resist. Norma, the title character in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera of the same name, does both – with disastrous results.
At 11 a.m. Saturday at Fort Lewis College, The Met Live in HD will stream a matinee performance of “Norma.” Bellini’s 1831 bel canto (beautiful song) masterpiece will unfurl in a new production by British director Sir David McVicar. He sets the opera in 50 BCE. The Romans have invaded and occupied ancient Gaul, the land of the Druids.
To stave off rebellion, Norma (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky), a high priestess, pleads with her father, Oroveso (bass Matthew Rose), the Druid’s military leader. Secretly, she hides her romantic liaison with the Roman Consul (tenor Joseph Calleja) and the existence of their two children, but prefers a younger woman, Adalgisa (mezzo Joyce DiDinato). It’s the Medea-Jason story all over again from Greek mythology. Jason leaves Medea for a younger woman, and in crazed revenge, Medea kills the two sons.
All things ancient Greek and Roman were the European rage in the 1830s. “Norma, ou L’infanticide,” a five-act verse-tragedy by Alexandre Soumet, thrilled Parisian audiences when it premiered in April 1831. It echoed the Medea myth but with a happy ending. Bellini’s librettist Felice Romani had already written a libretto on the Medea theme for another, lesser but prolific, Italian composer, Giovanni Pacini, “La Sacerdotessa d’Irminsul. (The Priestess of Irminsul).” A pagan priestess falls in love with a general in Charlemagne’s Christian army. And, yes, it, too, ends happily.
Well, Bellini and Romani’s “Norma” ends with a certain sense of closure, but it doesn’t follow the original Medea myth or other, lighter interpretations that were in the air in the early 19th century. Enough said.
Bellini’s “Norma” premiered at la Scala in Milan on Dec. 26, 1831. It wasn’t an immediate success. That took time, and now it’s considered a masterpiece from Bellini’s very short yet productive life. He died near Paris at age 34 of acute inflammation of the large intestine and abscess of the liver.
The bel canto style is known for its clarity, beauty, elegance and its close union of words and music. Bel canto singers must evidence tremendous vocal agility and sheer stamina. Above all, Bellini’s luminous melodies make his operas memorable.
Before you go, check out any of the YouTube presentations of Norma’s famous Act I aria “Casta Diva,” It’s a prayer to the Goddess of the Moon, a quiet, beautiful request for peace.
Verdi said it all when he praised Bellini’s “long, long, long melodies; melodies such as no one had written before him.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.