Vincenzo Bellini • Norma
Tragedia lirica in two acts by Vincenzo (1801–1835)
Performance of the new critical edition
by Riccardo Minasi and Maurizio Biondi
Libretto by Felice Romani (1788–1865) based on the tragedy Norma ou L'Infanticide (1831) by Alexandre Soumet (1788-1845)
With German and English surtitles
Print program (PDF)
“Bellini was, I believe, the last composer of opera fully to recognize that song was not just a means to a dramatic end but a magical power.” This statement by the musicologist David Kimbell describes a specific characteristic of Vincenzo Bellini’s music that constantly fascinates us, particularly in Norma, his undisputed masterpiece. However, it should not be forgotten that it is this opera above all others which not only contains “melodie lunghe lunghe lunghe” (as Verdi admiringly called them), but also has tremendous dramatic force – that is to say it is by no means merely a vehicle for bel canto (“beautiful singing”). Surrounded by a particular aura, this work can unfold its magic in many different ways, and indeed, since its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1831 performance practice has gradually moved ever further away from its original musical form. This is the first time that Bellini’s Norma has been staged at the Salzburg Festival, and it will be based on a new critical edition of the score, approximating as far as possible to the sound of the original.
Arthur Schopenhauer admired the “truly tragic effect of the catastrophe” that emerges “so purely motivated and clearly expressed” in the finale of Norma, while Alfred Einstein opined that “anyone who comes away from a performance of Norma and is not filled to overflowing with the last pages of this act does not know what music is”. Where does this emotional turmoil that Bellini’s music triggers in us spring from? Perhaps from the fact that the composer and his librettist Felice Romani do not let their heroine descend into madness at the end, as they did to such effect in La Sonnambula, a fate that also befalls the heroines of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor. In the finale of Norma the heroine deliberately chooses to indict herself before her people as a traitress and accepts her death at the stake. In doing so she regains the love and respect of Pollione, who had wanted to leave her for the younger Adalgisa – and the hearts of the audience.
The two creators of Norma – the relationship between Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani can justifiably be compared to that between Mozart and Da Ponte or Strauss and Hofmannsthal – drew on various literary models. However, at decisive points they diverge from their sources. In contrast to Alexandre Soumet’s drama Norma ou L’Infanticide, on which the libretto is mainly based, the eponymous heroine of the opera is not portrayed as a second Medea. Although she intends to kill the two children she has with Pollione as an act of revenge after he abandons her, she ultimately finds herself incapable of performing the deed. Thus a realistic and touching portrait of a loving wife and mother emerges, of a woman who goes through all the highs and lows of emotion before she takes the final, superhuman step of sacrificing herself.
One of the most famous arias in the history of opera is Norma’s prayer to the moon goddess, “Casta Diva”. Like many other passages in the score, this scene can only unfold its charm if it is not misunderstood as a mere occasion for a virtuoso display of florid ornamentation. Although the expansive vocal line, the atmospherically complex interplay between protagonist, orchestra and chorus and the stylistically perfect entry of the coloratura meld suggestively into a perfect whole, the intention behind Bellini’s art is not merely to be “beautiful”; it is always subservient to expression, giving us an understanding of a figure on the stage who is often in thrall to extremes of emotion.
In a concert performance of Norma given two years ago Cecilia Bartoli showed us how startlingly fresh this opera can appear when it is not (mis)interpreted on veristic principles. At the Salzburg Whitsun Festival 2013 she is taking on the challenge for the first time of breathing life into this immensely difficult role in a staged production. On the podium will be Giovanni Antonini, conductor of last year’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, with whom Cecilia Bartoli has frequently collaborated, above all in the field of Baroque music. The original orchestral sound of Norma from 1831 will be interpreted by the Orchestra La Scintilla from Zurich; Cecilia Bartoli has worked with this ensemble for many years, a collaboration that has recently included a re-evaluation of a number of works by Bellini’s contemporary Gioachino Rossini, such as Le Comte Ory or the seldom performed Otello. They will be joined by the choir of Radiotelevisione Svizzera.
For co-directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier it is not a question of illustrating the construct of a fictional mythical character. Norma is the charismatic leader of a group of people who are waging a war of resistance against a superior occupying force. In succumbing to her passion for Pollione, the leader of the occupiers, she has betrayed her own people, but by ultimately admitting her guilt and sacrificing her own life she preserves her dignity. The story of this outstanding woman is being transplanted from a fantastical Gaul into a concrete historical epoch, thus making her tragic conflict comprehensible and touchingly immediate.
Translated by Sophie Kidd