A short history of Vincenzo Bellini’s greatest opera
A painstaking preparation and a cold reception, which was overcome only few months later during the revival in Bergamo: these are the beginnings of the tragedia lirica Norma, which was to become the most popular among Vincenzo Bellini’s operas. Although it was not the “fiasco, fiasco, fiasco” the composer described in his letter to Florimo, the audience seemed not to understand the value of the work at the premiere at the Teatro La Scala in Milan on 26 December 1831.
Norma: Source & Libretto
There are many reasons for this cold reception, even though all precautions had been taken. Written to a libretto by Bellini’s reliable librettist Felice Romani, Norma is based on Alexandre Soumet’s Norma, ou L’infanticide (“Norma, or The Infanticide”), a play premiered successfully in Paris the year before. The play is more spectacular and bloody than the opera, as Norma kills both her sons and then goes made and throw herself off a precipice. Romani and Bellini carefully avoided the tragic excesses of Soumet’s work and expunged both the infanticide and Norma’s suicide. In fact, as the New Grove states, Norma must be considered «as a step towards a different brand of Romanticism, its passions all the more forceful for being collapsed into an understated dramatic design».
Romani defined Norma «the most beautiful rose in the garland» of the librettos he wrote for Bellini, but the preparation of this masterpiece was not easy at all. The librettist worked incessantly, to the point that his wife recalled that her husband in the end wrote three librettos. This continuous working was mainly due to the exigent composer, who continually asked to re-write parts of the libretto. Furthermore, the censorship was quite unsatisfied and suspicious about the chorus.
Despite these delays, Norma was completed by the end of November. It was not a completely “new” opera, as Bellini reused some materials from Bianca e Fernando, from an aria da camera and from his unfinished opera Ernani. On the whole, Bellini was not completely satisfied, as he felt that some parts could have been improved, and he actually hoped to modify them sooner or later. One of these parts where the duet between Pollione and Adalgisa, of which not less than five fragmentary versions survive.
At the premiere, three among the best singers of the time created the role of Norma, Pollione and Adalgisa: respectively, Giuditta Pasta, Giulia Grisi and Domenico Donzelli. Bass Vincenzo Negrini created the role of Oroveso.
With Donzelli, things went smoothly: the tenor, who made a name for himself singing Rossini roles, took care of describing minutely his voice to Bellini and the composer promptly contented him.
With Giuditta Pasta, on the contrary, there were some problems. The soprano betrayed tiredness during rehearsals and asked Bellini to change the cavatina. Bellini did not complied with her request and rather modified the key (from G major to F major), asking the singer to sing the cavatina every morning for one week and then to decide. Pasta agreed and, the day of the premiere, she presented Bellini with cloth flowers and the lampshade which were the “witnesses” of her solitary study.
The 26th December was the traditional date that inaugurated the Carnival season and Norma premiered that day in 1831. The audience, far from being thrilled, remained silent and indifferent. Bellini, writing to his uncle, explained the failure with cabals of his detractors, especially «a powerful person and a rich one», revealing that «the powerful person does this because Pasta’s enemy» and he was perhaps Carlo Visconti Modrone, superintendant of the Milanese theatres. The rich person was «Pacini’s lover, and therefore my foe», Countess Giulia Samoyloff.
Apart from complots and partisanships, the failure depended also by the poor conditions of the singers, especially Pasta and Donzelli.
Norma: Revivals & Success
Things improved from the second performance and, after successful 34 performances and the revival in Bergamo in late 1832, its success was assured. In the course of the 19th century, Norma was represented more than two hundred times at La Scala alone and, together with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, it was one of the best examples of early Romantic music.
In modern times, after the bel canto revival, Norma is more popular than ever. Even though a great singer as Renata Tebaldi refused to record it, many other illustrious colleagues gave their contribution: first and foremost Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé.
DISCOGRAPHY (Selected Recordings)
Norma: 1954, Callas, Filippeschi, Stignani, Serafin
Norma: 1960, Callas, Corelli, Ludwig, Serafin
Norma: 1964, Sutherland, Alexander, Horne, Bonynge
Norma: 1972, Caballé, Domingo, Cossotto, Cillario
Norma: 1979, Scotto, Giacomini, Troyanos, Levine
Norma: 1984, Sutherland, Pavarotti, Caballé, Bonynge
For a complete discography of the opera, visit: https://www.operadis-opera-discography.org.uk/CLBLNORM.HTM
Original libretto: Google Books
Score: complete score