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Montserrat Caballe – “Casta diva” – “Norma” – Orange – F – 1974

by Luca

Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini (3 November 1801 – 23 September 1835) was an Italian opera composer. His greatest works are I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830), La sonnambula (1831), Norma (1831), Beatrice di Tenda (1833), and I puritani (1835). Known for his long-flowing melodic lines, for which he was named “the Swan of Catania,” Bellini was the quintessential composer of bel canto opera.

Born in Catania, Sicily, Bellini was a child prodigy from a highly musical family and legend has it he could sing an aria of Valentino Fioravanti at eighteen months. He began studying music theory at two, the piano at three, and by the age of five could apparently play well. Bellini’s first five pieces were composed when he was just six years old. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, it is certain that Bellini grew up in a musical household and that a career as a musician was never in doubt.

Having learned from his grandfather, Bellini left provincial Catania in June 1819 to study at the conservatory in Naples, with a stipend from the municipal government of Catania. By 1822 he was in the class of the director Nicolò Zingarelli, studying the masters of the Neapolitan school and the orchestral works of Haydn and Mozart. It was the custom at the Conservatory to introduce a promising student to the public with a dramatic work: the result was Bellini’s first opera Adelson e Salvini an opera semiseria that was presented at the Conservatory’s theatre. Bellini’s next opera, Bianca e Gernando, met with some success at the Teatro San Carlo, leading to a commission from the impresario Barbaia for an opera at La Scala. Il pirata was a resounding immediate success and began Bellini’s faithful and fruitful collaboration with the librettist and poet Felice Romani, and cemented his friendship with his favored tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini, who had sung in Bianca e Gernando.

Bellini’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
Bellini spent the next years, 1827–33 in Milan, where all doors were open to him. Sparking controversy in the press for its new style and its restless harmonic shifts into remote keys, La straniera (1828) was even more successful than Il pirata, and allowed Bellini to support himself solely by his opera commissions. The composer showed the taste for social life and the dandyism that Heinrich Heine emphasized in his literary portrait of Bellini (Florentinische Nächte, 1837). Opening a new theatre in Parma, his Zaira (1829) was a failure at the Teatro Ducale, but Venice welcomed I Capuleti e i Montecchi, which was based on the same Italian source as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The next five years were triumphant, with major successes with his greatest works, La sonnambula, Norma and I puritani, cut short by Bellini’s premature death just nine months after the premiere of I puritani. Bellini left London for Paris, but never completed the journey back to Milan.

Bellini died in Puteaux, near Paris of acute inflammation of the intestine, and was buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, Paris; his remains were removed to the cathedral of Catania in 1876. The Museo Belliniano housed in the Gravina Cruyllas Palace, in Catania, preserves memorabilia and scores.
“Norma” is a tragedia lirica or opera in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani after “Norma, ossia L’infanticidio” (“Norma, or The Infanticide”) by Alexandre Soumet. First produced at La Scala on December 26, 1831, it is generally regarded as an example of the supreme height of the bel canto tradition. “Casta diva” was one of the most familiar arias of the nineteenth century.
In a letter dated September 1, 1831, Bellini wrote to the soprano Giuditta Pasta that “Romani believes [that this subject] will be very effective, and absolutely ideal for your encyclopedic character, because that is the kind of character Norma has”. Indeed, Pasta’s vocal and dramatic range was encyclopedic: that March, she had created the very different Bellini role of Amina, the lyrically vulnerable Swiss village maiden, in “La sonnambula”.
In the 19th century, it was common for composers to interpolate arias of their own into other composers’ operas. Richard Wagner wrote an aria for bass and men’s chorus for an 1837 production of Norma.
The title role is generally considered one of the most difficult in the soprano repertoire. It calls for tremendous vocal control of range, flexibility, and dynamics. It contains a wide range of emotions: conflict of personal and public life, romantic life, maternal love, friendship, jealousy, murderous intent, and resignation. German soprano Lilli Lehmann once famously remarked on how the singing of all three Brünnhildes in Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” in one evening was less stressful than the singing of one Norma. However, her less famous reasoning was that “When you sing Wagner, you are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene that you do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself. But in Bellini, you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct emission.”
Throughout the 20th century, many singers have attempted the role of Bellini’s tormented Druid priestess, with varying degrees of success. The following is a listing of some of the most renowned Normas, each of whom has brought her own strengths and weaknesses to the role. In the early 1920s, Rosa Raisa, Claudia Muzio, and Rosa Ponselle were each admired in the role. The most prolific Norma of the postwar period was Maria Callas, with 89 stage performances (several of which exist on recording), along with two studio recordings (made in 1954 and 1960).
In the 1960s, two very different performers started donning the Druidess’s robes: the Australian Dame Joan Sutherland and the Turk Leyla Gencer. Following Sutherland’s 1964 debut in the title role, Pavarotti called her “the greatest female voice of all time”. In the 1970s, four other bel canto specialists debuted their Normas: Radmila Bakočević, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, and Renata Scotto. Not to be dismissed lightly are Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett, the two famous African-American divas who began as mezzo-sopranos and eventually started singing soprano repertoire.

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