Legendary Performances: Bellini followed up the success of his tender comedy La Sonnambula with this grand and exotic tale. In its keen characterization and its dramatic conflict between love and patriotic duty it anticipates the major themes of several Verdi operas. The conflict in the opera is between the native Druids of Britain and the Roman soldiers who are occupying the country. The Druid leaders are Oroveso (the High Priest) and Norma (the High Priestess), and the main Romans are the Proconsul Pollione and his centurion Flavio. Norma was Vincenzo Bellini's eighth opera and the one that completely secured his fame and fortune as a composer. Although, according to some contemporary reviews, the audience responded coolly to some aspects of Norma at its first performance at Milan's La Scala opera house on December 26, 1831, the public soon warmed to it and made it a popular success. In the nineteenth century, musicians as diverse as Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi, Johannes Brahms, and Gustav Mahler, regarded Norma as a pivotal work. Today Norma is accepted as Bellini's most successful tragic opera.
Felice Romani based the libretto on Alexandre Soumet's play of the same name, which had premiered in Paris in April 1831 to great critical acclaim. In 1998, David Kimbell noted that, despite this immediate literary source, the opera's plot and the nature of its title character have an earlier source in the Greek myth of Medea. Kimbell has also noted the distinct similarities between Romani's Norma and his text for Giovanni Pacini's opera La sacerdotessa d'Irminsul (1820).
The music of Norma is laden with all of the conventions of Italian opera in the first half of the nineteenth century, including solo vocal arias and duets, some of which follow the prototypical Rossinian crescendo into full-fledged end-of-act choruses. After the introduction, Pollione's cavatina ("Meco all'altar di Venere") foreshadows the events of the opera. Its form is essentially ternary, with the C minor tonality, nervous violin tremolo, and rhythmically active lower strings of the B section contrasting with the C major tonality of the A section. But Bellini avoids a complete reprise of the A section, returning ultimately to the disturbing minor-mode inflections and nervous instrumental texture of the B material. Pollione's cavatina is paired with a cabaletta ("Me protegge, mi defende"), in which he sings of the protective power of love, in the heroic key of E flat major and triumphant dotted rhythms. Norma's famed cavatina, "Casta diva," a prayer to the moon goddess, is introduced by a silvery flute solo over undulating violin arpeggios. Rather than independently, as previously in "Va crudele, al Dio spietato"/"E tu pure, ah! tu non sai!," Pollione and Adalgisa together in their duet "Vieni in Roma"/"Ciel! Così parlar l'ascolto sempre" complete musical phrases: once Adalgisa agrees to go to Rome with Pollione, she is under his musical control. A similar concept governs the Act II duet between Adalgisa and Norma ("Mira, o Norma"/"Ah! perchè la mia costanza"), in which Norma's weakening resolve to allow Adalgisa to beg for Pollione's return is mirrored in her willingness to adopt Adalgisa's musical language. The finale of Act I consists of a trio in which Norma is musically pitted against Pollione and Adalgisa, and in that of Act II, Oroveso and the chorus of druids punctuate Norma's central aria ("Deh! Non voleri vittime") as she ascends her funeral pyre.
Watch videos with other singers performing Va crudele al Dio spietato:
POLLIONE Va, crudele, al Dio spietato Offri in dono il sangue mio. Tutto, ah, tutto ei sia versato, Ma lasciarti non poss'io, No, nol posso! Sol promessa al Dio tu fosti, Ma il tuo core a me si diede. Ah! Non sai quel che mi costi Perch'io mai rinunzi a te.
ADALGISA E tu pure, ah, tu non sai Quanto costi a me dolente! All'altare che oltraggiai Lieta andava ed innocente, Sì, sì, v'andava innocente. Il pensiero al cielo ergea E il mio Dio vedeva in ciel! Or per me spergiura e rea Cielo e Dio ricopre un vel!
POLLIONE Ciel più puro e Dei migliori T'offro in Roma, ov'io mi reco.
ADALGISA colpita Parti forse?
POLLIONE Ai nuovi albori.
ADALGISA Parti? Ed io?
POLLIONE Tu vieni meco. De' tuoi riti è Amor più santo, A lui cedi, ah, cedi a me!
ADALGISA più commossa Ah! Non dirlo! Ah! Non dirlo!
POLLIONE Il dirò tanto, il dirò tanto Che ascoltato io sia da te.
ADALGISA Deh! Mi lascia!
POLLIONE Ah! Deh cedi, deh cedi a me!
ADALGISA Ah! Non posso! Mi proteggi, o giusto ciel!
POLLIONE Abbandonarmi così potresti! Abbandonarmi così! Adalgisa! Adalgisa! con tenerezza Vieni in Roma, ah, vieni, o cara, Dov'è amore e gioia e vita! Inebbriam nostr'alme a gara Del contento a cui ne invita! Voce in cor parla non senti, Che promette eterno ben? Ah! Dà fede a' dolci accenti, Sposo tuo mi stringi al sen!
English Libretto or Translation:
POLLIONE Go, cruel woman, shed my blood As offering to your heartless god; All my blood may be spilt, But I can never leave you, No, no, I can never leave you. You were but promised to your god: Your heart you really gave to me. Ah, you do not know what it would cost me, Ever to have to renounce your love...
ADALGISA And you, you do not know the pain Which loving you has cost me. Happy and innocent was I, destined To the altar which I have profaned. My thoughts rose up to heaven, Into the very presence of God. Now for me, guilty violator of my oath, Both heaven and God are veiled from sight
POLLIONE A purer heaven and holier gods I offer you, in Rome. I am going there now.
ADALGISA You are leaving?
POLLIONE At dawn -
ADALGISA You are leaving! - and l?
POLLIONE You will come with me. Love is more sacred than your rites ? Yield to Love, ah, yield to me!
ADALGISA Do not say it!
POLLIONE I shall say it, So many times that you will listen...
ADALGISA Ah, leave me!
POLLIONE No, yield, Yield to me.
ADALGISA Ah, I can not; Just Heaven, protect me!
POLLIONE Can you abandon me like this? Abandon me like this, Adalgisa? Come with me to Rome, O my love, For there is love, and joy, and life; We shall vie with each other To know the greater joy in life. Do you not hear a voice in your heart Which promises eternal happiness? Ah! Have faith in that sweet voice And take me, as husband, to your heart!