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Tragedia lirica in two acts
Libretto by Felice Romani after Alexandre Soumet's tragedy Norma ou L’Infanticide (1831)
First performed December 26 1831, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Sung in Italian with English & German surtitles
ca. 2 hours 45 minutes, including 1 interval
an introductory talk, in German, begins in the upstairs foyer 30 minutes before every performance
The country has been suffering under the hated occupying forces' regime of terror for many years. Members of the resistance, operating underground, with little success, to liberate their country are exhausted and debilitated. Impatient, they call upon their leader Norma to give the signal to attack the enemy. They want open war, they want to risk body and soul. But Norma cautions restraint. A ceasefire, more than that: she longs for peace. Nobody knows that Norma has been in a secret relationship with Pollione, governor of the occupying forces, for years. Only her friend Clotilde has been let in on the secret, only Clotilde knows that they have two children. Norma hopes that this double life will end one day, so that she can bring up the children in freedom with their father. Norma has heard that Pollione has been ordered to return to his country. He has not said a word to her about this, and she has sensed, for some time, that his love for her is dying. And, indeed, Pollione is not planning to take Norma and the children with him, but another woman instead: Adalgisa; she too is a woman who is working against him underground, she too was seduced by the enemy, she too feels she has betrayed her country. Adalgisa, in her confusion, confides in Norma, whose severity and radicalism she admires. Without divulging who she is talking about, she admits that the love she feels deeply unsettles her, making her feel guilty about neglecting her faith and the struggle for liberation. Norma is moved by the young woman's emotional turmoil, recognising a lot of herself in her. But when it comes to light that the man Adalgisa loves is Pollione, who has just entered Norma's home to visit the children in secret, Norma gives vent to her long suppressed feelings. She curses Pollione, wishing death upon him. In the space of a few hours her mind has become so distraught that, to punish Pollione, she plans to kill both children. She recoils in horror at the last minute and, in her madness, devises a new plan: She will place the children in Adalgisa's care; they shall leave the country with Pollione. But Adalgisa, shattered by trying to come to terms with Pollione's dishonesty, wants to reconcile the couple, renouncing her own passion. She manages to convince Norma of her sincerity and promises to go to Pollione and beg him to return to his family. Norma allows herself to be carried away by Adalgisa's plan, dearly wanting to believe in renewed happiness. In the meantime Norma's father, Oroveso, who founded the group of partisans, receives news that a new governor, and even greater mililtary presence, will mean that a fight, let alone victory over the enemy, seems even more hopeless. When Norma hears that Adalgisa's plan has failed, and that Pollione is even more intent on conquering Adalgisa – by force if necessary – she summons her warriors: it is time for battle, war is the watchword. Preparations for the attack are underway when an enemy is discovered in the camp: It is Pollione who, blind with fury, has assaulted Adalgisa. Norma now has the powerful occupier and unfaithful husband in her clutches. She is prepared to kill him with her own hands but, before doing so, wants to torture him by denouncing Adalgisa as his lover and handing her over to her comrades, when her mind suddenly clears. She accuses herself of insincerity against her fatherland and is prepared to face punishment with Pollione. Pollione realises, in the face of death, that he loves Norma, and has always loved her. Norma manages to make her father promise to care for the children. Released at last, Norma finds happiness again, and takes her leave from life. Christof Loy
Bellini and Donizetti breathed new life into Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century, drawing on English romanticism (Lord Byron) and French horror-romanticism. Felice Romani, the librettist for Bellini's greatest masterpiece, Norma, was inspired by Soumet's tragedy about the child murderer Norma and Chateaubriand's novel Les Martyrs (1808). Romani changed the wild celtic woman into a multi facetted character: the seer Norma became involved with her people's deadly enemy: she has two secret children with the Roman proconsul Pollione. But he is now attracted to another, younger woman: he has been summoned back to Rome and intends to take the novice Adalgisa with him. Torn between love and her sacred vow of chastity, Adalgisa seeks Norma out and tells her all. After she came close to killing her children out of desperation and all hopes have been dashed that Pollione will come back to her, she proclaims war on the Romans. Pollione is attacked in the temple and sentenced to death. Norma, who still loves him, tells her horrified people of her indiscretion and offers her life instead of his. She ends up on the funeral pyre.
Bellini combines »beautiful singing« (bel canto) with realistic, multi layered characterisations of the main protagonists. Norma's apparent super human status as a druid with prophetic powers does not prevent her from being a human figure, who fate moves us, the chaste moon goddess - »Casta Diva«. The balance between proud dignity, violent emotional outbursts and almost endless melodies in Bellini's work was greatly admired by Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner.