- 24 Feb 2020
One popular view of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is that the title role is so outrageously difficult to sing—and the work itself so little worth doing if you haven’t a soprano up to the mark—that the opera has only survived, in the years since its première in 1831, as a vehicle for a few particularly endowed prime donne: Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Giulia Grisi (all three of whom Bellini heard before he died at thirty-three), Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, and Maria Callas.
Like many popular views, this one is grounded in truth, but also muddled with imprecision. There is written into the role of Norma, Druid priestess and woman scorned, as much potential for dramatic excitement as into the roles of any of the great tragedy queens of Racine. God knows it isn’t an easy part to sing, with its demanding mixture of vocal and emotional textures, its C’s above (some go for D’s) and B-flats below the staff, its long-breathed lines and octave drops and showpiece trills. One must be able to sing a strong, natural-sounding contralto and some of the highest coloratura ever written. The role of Norma calls for an authentic bel canto soprano voice, one that can be both mercurial-birdlike and witchy-dramatic, which drastically reduces the field of available singers at any time.
Moreover, the dramatic challenge of this deep and complex part is at least as great as the musical. Alongside a good Norma, most Italian opera heromes—including other Bellini heroines—can seem poor butterflies indeed. It may well be that only the six sopranos I have just named have met both challenges at once, and have achieved something near to the full potential of this role.
It is impossible to describe accurately the voices or performances of singers who died before we were born, or before the invention of accurate recording devices. There is so much disagreement over the vocal qualities of living opera singers that I am even hesitant to cite “eyewitness” accounts. But in comparing critical descriptions made by their contemporaries of all six of these Normas, what I found striking was the constant use, over a century and a quarter, of the same terms. As Harold Rosenthal once wrote, “The great Normas of operatic history have to a greater or lesser extent all been great singing actresses: mistresses of dramatic declamation and outstanding personalities—Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas.” “The singer,” remarked another critic, “must translate into musical phrase and cadence the emotions of a character under stress, as Pasta and Malibran did—and as Callas has done.” Listening to Callas in Florence in 1952, a third critic wrote, “I realized what Stendhal and other chroniclers of the nineteenth century meant when they spoke of Malibran and Pasta.” “We can well believe,” comments John Ardoin in The Callas Legacy , “that her balance between drama and agility came the closest in modern terms to those qualities of Giuditta Pasta.”
Of every one of the six (except perhaps Ponselle), it was acknowledged that the vocal instrument itself could be impure, even unbeautiful, but that the singer converted this sometimes steely edge into operatic gold by her range, control, and agility; by musical intelligence, accuracy, and style; and by theatrical presence and histrionic skill. Writing in 1856, Paul Scudo said, “Beautiful, intelligent, and passionate, Pasta made up for the imperfections of her vocal organ by means of incessant work, and a noble, tender, knowing style. An actress of the first rank, [she] submitted each breath to the control of an impeccable taste, and never left a single note to chance.” Stendhal, a passionate admirer (and personal friend) of Giuditta Pasta, admitted that she (like Callas) had a voice made up of three distinct ranges—”not all molded from the same metal, as they say in Italy; but the fundamental variety of tone produced by a single voice affords one of the richest veins of musical expression which the artistry of a great soprano is able to exploit.” “From the start,” Sergio Segalini concludes his analysis of the stager for whom the role was created, “her limitations were obvious; but by dint of sheer effort, Giuditta Pasta forged all extremely accomplished technique that allowed her to become the ideal interpreter for Bellini and Donizetti. She was never able to erase her vocal asperities, nor give to her voice the exquisite beauty of a Maria Malibran. But thanks to those very asperities, she learned how to bring an infinite variety of vocal colors to her interpretations.”
From the start to the finish of her relatively brief career, many critics and operagoers were offended by Maria Callas’s metallic timbre, her sometimes forced or shrill high notes, the audible shifts among her three vocal ranges. But “these and others were precisely the accusations made at the time against Pasta and Malibran,” says the Italian musicologist Eugenio Gara, “two geniuses of song (as they were then called), sublime yet vocally imperfect.”
Most of the great Normas began as mezzos, or even Wagnerians, and then channeled that power into bel canto. Lilli Lehmann and Maria Callas were perhaps the only two sopranos in history who could sing well both Norma and Brünnhilde, sometimes two or three nights apart—a feat comparable, someone once wrote, to winning gold medals in both weightlifting and the hundred-yard dash. (Lehmann insisted that she would rather sing three Brünnhildes than a single Norma.) All six apparently worked at their craft with demon-driven intensity. Lehmann would sing each phrase through hundreds of times in practice, go through an act three or four times running. Callas did the whole “Casta diva” nine times in one rehearsal for her American première. Each of the six applied extraordinary intelligence to her analysis and creation of the role. “It should be sung and acted with fanatical consecration,” declared Lehmann. Each was able to electrify audiences by her mere presence on a stage.
It is uncanny how the same tributes recur: each of these Normas is called “hypnotic,” “riveting,” “electrifying,” “unforgettable”; each is described as having exact pitch and control; each is praised for recitatives and fioriture sung expressively, not for mere fill or show; each is called a genius of dramatic gesture and timing. Almost everything written of the earlier divas has also been said of Callas’s interpretation. As Time’s critic put it after her 1954 Norma in Chicago: “She may not have the most beautiful voice in the world, but she certainly is the most exciting singer. . . . She can be likened to no singer in the immediate past.” Andrew Porter wrote, “There is a real sense in which Callas, appalling though her vocalization often is, recalls the ‘old’ singers.” The chain was unbroken—here was a heroic coloratura, a “prototype of the legendary singers of old.” How such a tradition, such a “chain,” is maintained is impossible to determine: Maria Callas’s voice teacher, Elvira Di Hidalgo, was a Rossini singer of what she regarded as the Malibran mode, a musician fiercely committed to the old bel canto style. Another of Callas’s mentors, Tullio Serafin, had conducted Rosa Ponselle in the role thirty years before. “I am enthralled,” wrote Harold Rosenthal of Callas’s 1957 London Norma, “when she is onstage as with no other artist today. When all is said and done, opera is more than singing; it is music drama; and Callas’ Norma is a dramatic creation of the highest order. . . . We will tell our children and grandchildren about it.”
One needn’t wait for once-in-a-generation near-perfection to hear a performance of bel canto opera. The extraordinary success of Maria Callas may have inspired other singers and impresarios to resurrect many works by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, after decades of apparent neglect. But these roles had never died out in Italy. There, the provincial and major houses have kept Norma and her challenging sisters in the repertory since their early nineteenth-century premières: one Italian critic has listed twenty-three Normas worthy of note between Pasta and Callas. He also reminds us that the opera experienced long periods of absence from major houses—three twenty-year lapses at La Scala, two thirty-year gaps at the Met.
More than ten years ago, Andrew Porter unearthed forty-seven different recordings of “Casta diva,” Norma’s famous first-act prayer: two verses of heartbreakingly beautiful melody over simple string arpeggios and a solo flute, which soar weightlessly in long curves around the key of F, then spill over into wild, repeated trills. The cavatina climaxes in two series of fortissimo high A’s, leaping up to B-flat and then trickling rapidly down. It is gorgeous, it is touching, it is fiendishly demanding. It can be made to correspond precisely to the secret inner pain and confusion of the traitor/priestess, poignantly pleading with the moon-goddess to temper the audacious zeal and ardent hearts of her people. And it seems that every soprano in sight, from Adelina Patti to Helen Traubel, wanted to prove that she could sing it. Giuditta Pasta, who sang the first Norma at her La Scala debut, insisted at first that the aria be cut: she found it “ill adapted to her abilities.” But Bellini talked her into it before opening night. Rosa Ponselle used it as her audition aria for Gatti-Casazza at the Metropolitan in 1918, and fainted halfway through.
Since Callas revived Norma for the non-Italian world in 1948 (she sang her last in Paris in 1965), any number of singers have had a go at the role, often in explicit imitation of her style. The most noteworthy of the present generation have been three divas gifted at coloratura, if not at compelling dramatic recreations. Joan Sutherland (who played Callas’s maid in 1952) sang Norma first in Vancouver in 1963. Beverly Sills began her series in Boston in 1971. Montserrat Caballé, the most nearly satisfactory of the three, started singing the role in Barcelona in 1970. Unfortunately, because of the renewed popularity of the opera (and perhaps the challenge inherent of the role), many sopranos whose abilities come nowhere near the demands of the role have attempted to sing Norma in recent years.
There is no one left alive to recall Lilli Lehmann’s Normas of the 1890s; there can be very few who remember Rosa Ponselle’s of the 1920s. (One can still hear their “Casta diva” and “Mira, o Norma” on old recordings.)
Most of today’s critics were brought up with the Callas version. Her 1952 Norma was one of the first classical LPs I ever bought. I saw her sing the role two and a half times. (The half was in Rome in January 1958; she sang Act I, then refused to sing any more, because of a throat problem. A major scandal ensued, and she was banned from the theatre for life. “Vietato a Callas di Cantare a Roma!” screamed page one Roman headlines the next day.)
Like most Callas-trained observers, I have been to some degree discontented with every other Norma I have heard since. What I feel we are missing in other Normas of the last twenty years is the dramatic dimension that only a few great singing actresses have been able to give to the part.
The other half-truth in the popular view of Norma is that the opera itself—the noise and motion surrounding the central role—is pretty commonplace stuff. Liszt writes of “the weak, effeminate, poor-spirited Bellini.” Berlioz compares him to “a grinning puppet.” My old 1930s Victor Book of the Opera seems to damn the opera with faint praise: “Those who weary of declamatory modern opera, in which the
music is constantly changing in agreement with the most swift and subtle moods that emotion throws upon the stage . . . will have no quarrel with the simplicity of Norma .”
More than one commentator has dismissed most of the score as hurdy-gurdy stuff: thin, catchy, repetitive, predictable. “Serious” Italian orchestration, after all, is supposed to have come in with Verdi (who, while defending Bellini’s melodies, found him weak in harmony and poor in instrumentation). And though the central triangle may afford lean and passionate drama, the Druid business around it has befuddled more than one producer—a lot of chorus members forever trooping in and out in long robes to sing bouncy songs about how much they hate the Romans. “What on earth is one to do with Norma? ” is the critic’s rhetorical excuse for static productions.
Frankly, I’m not sure. Apparently it worked—as a production—for twelve thousand people in the ancient Greek amphitheatre at Epidaurus in 1960, where Callas had real hills and trees as a backdrop. A La Scala effort at modern abstract design in 1973 pleased almost nobody. Any producer who tries to get rid of the long robes and thick tree trunks is slapped for being insufficiently Druid.
The Egypt business, the politics of Aida , works because it is so essentially integrated into the human story. The politics of Norma is not. Two Gallic priestesses falling in love with a Roman proconsul complicate the intrigue, of course. Adalgisa is especially ashamed to abbandonar la patria . The sacred gong Norma bashes three times is at once the Druid war cry and a wild gesture of personal revenge. The fire in which she burns is punishment for treason as well as for breaking her vows of chastity. (“Casta diva,” indeed.)
But Oroveso and the chorus really serve no essential dramatic function. They think they’re finally going to get a chance to fight when the gong rings in Act III, and they break into the wild “Guerra, guerra” chorus, allegro feroce , under Norma’s frenzied urging. But their subjugated, static role is exactly the same at the end as it was at the beginning. Felice Romani gives them some wonderful lyrics full of sangue and vendetta: the Tiber will run with blood when our Druid battle axes beat down their eagles. But it’s all hopeless wishful thinking. These forest-dwelling religious cranks obviously haven’t a chance against Rome. And the music Bellini gives them (with that one exception) is about as warlike and barbaric as a holiday march. Bars and bars of it are spent just getting them on and off stage.
As for the orchestration generally, I think Bellini was more knowing and dramatically skillful than Verdi gave him credit for. Things most operagoers feel rather than recognize, such as tonal shifts (Herbert Weinstock, Domenico de Paoli, and Pierre Brunel have all analyzed the music well), silences, and suspensions, were worked out as carefully as the more obviously expressive gestures—violins allegro agitato or creepy-crawly low strings to hint of danger; repeated notes to signify inner agitation; tender love lyrics easing out of crashing chords; a full palette of woodwind colors. The chorus-moving music may get to be a drag, and that overly jaunty E-flat march keeps coming back. But some of the orchestral interludes (listen to the poignant, three-theme D-minor prelude to Act II) are seductive and appropriate, and the singers’ line is usually deftly underscored by the musicians.’
In any case, the vocal line itself, recitatives included, is almost always dramatically apt as well as beautiful, which is not an easy thing to achieve. Herbert Weinstock argues that every trill, every chromatic run, and every ornamentation of Norma’s arias make perfect dramatic sense. Some historians of eighteenth—and early nineteenth-century opera have argued that its vocal embellishments (except as individually vulgarized by celebrity singers) were never mere vehicles for technical virtuosity, as later singers sometimes made them appear. Most often, they assert, these runs and shakes and scales and trills were intended to be dramatically expressive—of fury, madness, ecstasy, or rapture. In the case of many bel canto operas, I am not persuaded. But I agree that every one of Norma’s “ornaments” can be made to serve as an expression of inner feeling.
Even “Casta diva,” best remembered for its long-breathed, floating, rising-and-falling legato, would lose half its meaning without the coloratura outburst with which it concludes. Of Norma’s violent attack on Pollione (“Ah, non tremare”), Brunel comments, “Norma’s extreme vehemence, transformed into sheer fury, expresses itself by means of her fioriture .” The three diabolically difficult low trills—E-flat, G-flat, B-flat—that Norma has to sing in Act II (con furore ) on the accented dotted quarter notes of “A-dal-gi -sa fia punita” (Adalgisa will be punished) are the physical manifestation of her unbearable internal rage. The unaccented syllables here are sung to doubled sixteenth notes; after a fourth trill on the tonic B-flat, she leaps to a rapid run (up to A) above and down the staff to complete the dire and vengeful sentence: “Nel -le fiamme perirà,” “She will perish in the flames.”
Even Wagner (an unlikely defender) recognized this quality in Bellini. “They think me an ogre in all that concerns the musical school of Italy,” he wrote in 1837, “and they set me up in especial opposition to Bellini. No, no, a thousand times no! Bellini is one of my favorites, because his music is all heart, deeply felt, closely and intimately bound up with the words ” (my italics).
Wagner’s evaluation of Bellini’s music underwent a number of revolutions. His successive, perhaps overlapping views are worth considering in any assessment of Bellini’s skills that is to go beyond the “swan of Catania” legend—that of a mellifluous craftsman who wrote bel canto arias for world-famous canaries to sing, and then suffered the fate of dying romantically young.
In 1837, Wagner was recommending the study of Bellini as “a cure for the intellectual abstruseness of German composers.” He had conducted Norma at Magdeburg in 1835, and at Riga in 1837, making additions to and changes in the orchestration. At Paris in 1839, he wrote a new aria (never used) for Oroveso to sing. Later, in an essay on Spontini and Rossini, he mocked the “consumptive variations” on Rossini’s already thin themes that Bellini and Donizetti had fed to the public. Wagner seems to have mellowed after a visit in 1860 to the sixty-eight-year-old Rossini, when some of his early enthusiasm for Bellini appeared to return. By 1871, however, he was calling Norma “insipid and threadbare.” In 1880, the conductor Anton Seidl wrote to Francesco Florimo, who was collecting letters and memoirs for a book on Bellini, that after playing him some melodies from Norma on the piano, Wagner had remarked, “Despite a certain poverty, there is real passion and feeling here. It only needs to be sung by the right singer to make a deeply moving effect.”
It would be unwise, I think, to base a case for bel canto opera on either the chorus or the orchestration of Norma . “What enchanted us in Bellini [the younger Wagner again] was the pure melody, the simple nobility and beauty of song. Surely it can be no sin to assert this.” In the end, the case rests on the words and music Romani and Bellini wrote for Pollione, Adalgisa, and Norma—words and music rendered, not by nightingales and star tenors belting out concert arias and ensembles, but by three proud, suffering, and complicated people.
Pollione was first sung by Domenico Donzelli, who wrote Bellini to brag of his range, “from the bass D up to the high C.” “When he gave out his high notes,” according to a contemporary observer, “there was some misgiving as to the peril of his blood vessels.” Giovanni Martinelli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi played the role early in this century. In my younger years, the biggest name tenor to take the role was Mario Del Monaco; the best looking, Franco Corelli—neither to universal satisfaction. But it cannot be pretended that the role is particularly heroic: Norma is a woman’s opera, in which both tenor and bass serve as foils.
The first Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, was soon to sing Norma, which makes clear that Bellini intended the role for a soprano rather than a mezzo. In my time, Ebe Stignani sang the part of the timid virgin giovanetta until she was old enough to be Callas’s mother. The role offers less dramatic range than Norma’s, but almost as much opportunity for vocal display. (The vocal scale, as written, is identical.) This is, in fact, one of the great supporting roles, and some of the finest sopranos (and mezzos) have been happy to undertake it: Barbieri, Cossotto, Horne, Simionato, Swarthout, Thebom, Troyanos. The proper blending of different timbres between the two women is crucial, and the casting of two sopranos of similar vocal quality (as is sometimes done) is inevitably a mistake.
The Norma-Adalgisa duets in fact demonstrate the difficulty of casting the central role. It has been convincingly argued that the “ideal” voice for a Norma is what the French call a falcon , which is to say a powerful mezzo-soprano with an extended upper range. To differentiate the roles, then, and distinguish the blending vocal vibrations within their duets, the younger woman should be sung by a pure, high lyric soprano. But although a modern “extended mezzo” (Grace Bumbry, who has sung both Adalgisa and Norma, is one example) may be able to do justice to many of the expressive demands of the role, and achieve the strength and vocal color necessary for certain aspects of the character, it is unlikely that she will be able to soar freely into the uppermost notes of the part, or master the high coloratura. For this reason, we usually hear Norma sung by a soprano, Adalgisa by a mezzo—with portions of the latter role either cut or (in the duets) transferred to Norma.
Giuditta Pasta did in fact have the unique combination of resources the role demands, and it was specifically for her voice that Bellini crafted this very nearly unsingable role. (Maria Malibran has been considered a “stretched contralto”—someone who has to work even harder to make the role her own. Of both early divas, as of Maria Callas, it has been claimed that repeated performances of the role did harmful and painful things to their vocal cords.)
In addition to being the most vocally demanding and physically strenuous female role in Italian opera (“the Isolde of La Scala”), the character of Norma encompasses a psychological encyclopedia of emotions. When she enters late in the first act, she immediately berates the chorus in imperious recitative: “Who presumes to dictate a reply to the all-seeing Norma?” Seconds later, she is breathing out her heavenly prayer for peace, establishing at once her priesthood, her dominion, her tenderness (and her vocal powers). Prayer and rites over, she moves into a rich, yearning aria (which no one on stage hears) of her guilty love for Pollione. Three scenes later she herself sings (in witchy recitative, down to B-flat below staff) of the diversi affetti in her breast, her mingled love and hatred for her and Pollione’s sons. Then, almost at once, she opens up into a voluptuous free duet encouraging Adalgisa in her new love, half in recollection (“O, rimembranza!”) of her own—an outburst of pure beauty.
She ends with a leap to high C and a chromatic run by exact semitones down to A, which Adalgisa gets to repeat twenty-one bars later. Then the two match voices for one of Bellini’s more spectacular a capella cadenzas, to express what they think is a happily shared feeling. Pause for breath.
“Where’s he from, your new lover?” “From Rome.” “Ro-ma!” (E-flat, drop to F-sharp). In comes Pollione. “E-i! Pol-lion!!’ (an octave drop down, an octave leap up. As one critic pointed out, Callas always sang both exclamation points.) Horns, woodwinds; staccato violins suddenly race up two octaves:L’ira di Norma .
She rounds on Pollione in one of the most spine-chilling lines of all opera: “Tremi tu? e per chi?” (You are trembling? And for whom?); and then answers her own question by leaping into an aria, con tutta forza (“Tremble for yourself, evil one, for your children—Trema per me! “), of violent, shuddering scorn. Raging inside the glorious lyric line, she shifts halfway to Adalgisa, and introduces the second great ensemble of warring emotions, B-flat major, 9/8 time: Norma is madly cursing Pollione, Adalgisa is in agony, Pollione is defying her gods and yet pleading for Adalgisa, all at the same time. Pierre Brunel has analyzed this magnificent trio in persuasive detail:
The rhythm is always vigorous, the vocal ornaments allow each separate accent to emerge clearly: accents of pity in Norma, accents of heartbroken lucidity in Adalgisa, accents of impotent effort in Pollione. The characters are not tearing one another apart: their griefs superimpose in a lyrical ascent that achieves a sort of gravity by means of the trinity of treason, deceit, and sin. After a few measures in which the orchestra makes use of a discreet chromaticism, an allegro risoluto in E-flat major starts the movement again, which is soon to pick up speed: Norma runs after Pollione, who tries to drag off Adalgisa. The girl refuses, despite Norma’s orders—”Follow him!” Bellini multiplies the scenic indications in this dramatic intermezzo.
The final part of the trio (allegro agitato assai in G minor) once again opens with Norma’s invective against Pollione—”Vanne, si “: she turns on him and covers him with curses. Over a shivering accompaniment of strings her voice rises, implacable, up to the solemn and ultimate threat, “Te sul onde ,” at which point the melody—with a vigor now equal to that of her voice—reaches its ultimate expansion. Norma’s vocal line is reprised by Pollione and Adalgisa in duct, the one trying desperately to defend his love, the other renouncing the man she loves in order not to hurt Norma; but soon the great curse rises again to dominate their voices. And this frantic trio goes on, to the point of exhaustion, even though the sacred bronze has already sounded in the temple, and the chorus of Druids is heard calling on Norma to accomplish her holy rites.
And so on it goes, a virtually unbroken gamut of violent emotional changes our singer-actress must make credible, until the moment when she beats the sacred shield, announces her own guilt, and, shrouded in black, marches into her own funeral pyre. Surely she is, as Pollione at last comes to realize, a sublime donna .
Wagner, I think, made two crucial points about Norma . Of course the opera is “thin” (“consumptive,” “threadbare”) when compared with the orchestral density and vocal variety of Tristan or the Ring . But (a) the music of the three leads, and Norma’s in particular, is “intimately bound up with the words” to a degree that even Verdi, a supremely astute man of the theatre, rarely achieved, and that Bellini himself accomplished in no other opera; and (b) the music “only needs to be sung by the right singer to make a deeply moving effect.” Wagner’s third point, regarding Bellini’s sublime gift for touching melody (“His music is all heart. . . . There is real passion and feeling here”), I will simply take as a given. It is one of the points on which even Bellini’s detractors seem to agree, and one that I am unable to analyze or explain.
I have mentioned a number of qualities that have been singled out in the praise of one great Norma after another: size and range of voice, control, agility, accuracy, musical intelligence, theatrical “presence,” “intensity,” professional dedication, and an expressive—rather than a routinely musical, let alone an exhibitionist—treatment of every note in the score. Many of these qualities, I believe (some of them virtually demanded by text and score), feed into and in the end blend with the character of Norma herself. Certainly range, control, dedication, a conscious theatricalism of effect, and an instantaneous, mercurial shifting between emotions are characteristics of the role as well (ideally) of the singer who dares to enact it. (There are parallels with Floria Tosca, at least in Callas’s interpretation of the part: a passionate opera singer playing a passionate opera singer. But both role and character in Puccini are less powerful, wide-ranging, and “true,” I believe, than their counterparts in Bellini.)
The astonishing breath control critics cite again and again in describing the great Normas—the viola- or cellolike legato line sustained with micro-minute dynamic control (“a perfectly pitched high and soft E-flat at the end of a difficult aria”), as if the singer had no more need to breathe in than a stringed instrument has—seems to me to represent Norma’s own superhuman efforts at self-control. The mad outbursts of “impossible” coloratura singing up and down, above and below the treble staff render audible what happens when this control breaks down.
Callas’s notorious “three voices,” or three distinct vocal registers (what one critic calls her “chameleon voice”)—the fierce, growling, dark contralto; the warm, floating, flutelike mezza voce; the steely and uncertain highs—might even, in this particular role, be identified with the outrageously variable aspects of Norma’s character: proud priestess, tender mother-lover, vengeful woman scorned. Other observers have remarked how Callas was able to give Norma’s frequent and difficult descending chromatic glissandi a strangely melancholic tone, as if the downscale fall revealed some secret inner pain. “Her secret,” Eugenio Gara writes, “is her ability to transfer to the musical plane the suffering of the character she plays.”
I do not know what makes one soprano’s voice seem to convey more of “passionate womanhood” than another’s. Despite all of the reams of “intimate” analysis that have been written about the lives of both Maria Malibran and Maria Callas (both of whom, like Bellini, died early enough for legend—Malibran at twenty-eight, Callas at fifty-four), I have no sure reason to believe that this expressiveness is bound up with a singer’s private, offstage experience. Great acting is great acting; great singing is great singing. Neither need be a reflection or translation of the kind of person an actor or singer is, the kind of joys or pains she (or he) has experienced.
Callas’s vocal quality and control, her dramatic expressiveness, and her onstage demeanor in the role of Norma (and I presume that this is at least partly true for the five other great interpreters as well) went, of course, far beyond bel canto, in the simplistic sense of “beautiful singing.” (To singers and voice teachers of the pure style, the phrase bel canto has always meant a great deal more than that.) One could argue, in fact, that the sum of her characteristics often fell short of “beautiful singing.” It also achieved something more intense and more compelling than the vivid theatrical recreation, the “illumination” of a fictional character—something for which actors from Garrick to Olivier, from Mary Garden to Fyodor Chaliapin have been praised.
Since the disappearance of castrati, the female dramatic soprano has been the single most impressive and compelling vocal range in opera: the highest, the most potentially moving, the most astonishing; the farthest, in effect, from the way we talk. Opera, as several commentators (among them Hélène Seydoux) have remarked, depends absolutely for its historic, enduring, and immediate power on the female soprano range, which is at once ethereally high (like E-string notes above the fingerboard on a violin) and, by the standards of most human beings, “superhumanly” powerful. An all-male opera—Britten’s Billy Budd for example—can, like an all-male chorus, be tremendously powerful; but it will always be the odd, one-in-a-hundred exception. When you add to the potential range and power of a dramatic soprano the (literally) breathtaking agility of a coloratura—as any acceptable Norma must do—you have the makings of the sublime operatic, perhaps even musical experience, in purely auditory terms.
In Opera, or the Undoing of Women , Catherine Clément argues that this spellbinding vocal phenomenon—the human voice at its most beautiful, its potentially most expressive—has too often been “wasted” on weak, pliable, long-suffering heroines. Most of the female characters in opera are seen as either the creatures (Clément’s view) of crude and cruel male librettists and composers who were simply converting their or their cultures’ male-chauvinist fantasies into operas; or (Hélène Seydoux’s view) of male artists secretly frustrated by their cultural obligation to “act like men,” when what they really wanted to do was cry. (They express their female inner selves, according to Seydoux—who regards opera as an innately bisexual art—through their suffering heroines.)
But can one honestly say that of Norma? Catherine Clément’s analysis of Norma, like her analyses of other “undone women” in opera, is rapturous and opaque. But she does seem to grant the Druid priestess a large measure of independence, of pre-Christian, pre-Roman female strength: the strength of a witch or sorceress, even more than that of a lover and mother.
These furies, these goddesses, these women with fearsome arms and inspired eyes [a not inaccurate image of Callas on stage], these Turandots and Normas collected the witch’s inheritance in the nineteenth century. . . .
Man gave them the law that makes them women and mothers; then comes the day when the husband and father betrays the woman, who has become undesirable. That is where Norma’s story begins. . . . Norma and Adalgisa are the past and the present of a single colonizer-lover; the conqueror takes forcibly, seduces, and carries off; that is his pleasure, that is what moves him. . . .
[The sorceresses, the weird women, the goddesses] have not disappeared. . . . They revive in every woman burdened with a heart too full of misfortune. . . . If I find something really to love in all these torn women, it is because, under the opera lights, they bear the attenuated but recognizable features of a redeeming paganism. . . . Oh, it is not that paganism triumphs; these women always lose, but that’s what they are staging—their resistance to the one God . . . the one clung to by man.
In Norma’s face-to-face confrontation with Pollione, writes Clément, “she, the priestess, she, the possessor of divine power, can kill him or save him.” Only when faced with the possible exposure and death of his new love, Adalgisa, does the Roman man melt, beg, implore. Now, according to Clément, Norma has what she wants: the man on his knees. Now she can willingly denounce not Adalgisa but herself, and escape the world by means of “the flight of a sorceress, who finds a way to constrain her faithless lover by fire.”
Some of Clément’s analysis is beyond my understanding. But I do hear in almost all of Norma’s music, especially as rendered by Callas, the sound of “womanhood” at its most various, most powerful, most defiantly independent of men. For the character of Norma, Bellini created not simply vocal lines that evoke a woman’s conjugal and maternal love, or the violent pain of a woman rejected by a man. (Italian opera is full of such women—including, of course, Callas’s other signature role, Cherubini’s Medea.) I also hear, in the two great Norma-Adalgisa duets (especially “Mira, o Norma,” but also in “O, rimembranza!”), the defiant power of a “sisterhood” that goes far beyond rivalry over a man. So, not surprisingly, does Catherine Clément in her 1980 essay:
How does the music [of the Act I duet], latent in Adalgisa, awaken in Norma the source of tenderness? Here it is that is born in her the memory, and with it the sweet melody accompanied by plaintive flutes. Here is love, sung in doubled unison.
An astonishing duet; an astonishing rapport. One sings—and the other sings too. A cello accompanies the deeper voice, another cello accompanies the younger. And Norma replies; Norma admits; Norma remembers. Nothing can stop Adalgisa now: she is transported by the cries of love at its most irrational. And Norma? Norma relives it all as if in an echo. Hallucinated, she discovers herself once more in the “other woman”: an essential substructure for the “hysterical,” womb-to-womb identification by which every female relationship takes place. We swim with them in a fluid love that pours itself out in all directions: a love in which Pollione (the still-unmentioned object of the same love that these two women bear for him) serves as the conduit between one and the other. Adalgisa is captivated by the marvelous way in which love begins, and Norma is captivated by Adalgisa in love. The two women are in love with the same love: “he,” the man who, in the pre-dawn light, whispers to one the same tender words he once whispered to the other, “he” is never named. “He” does not exist, beyond the united beating of two women’s hearts. . . .
Norma does not find tenderness in the chaste, cold moon. She does not find it in the faithless Roman Pollionc. She finds it only in Adalgisa. True love duets take place only between two women: pure accounts of sublimated passion meet each other there—and nowhere else. Tender Adalgisa, a private shelter of sweet unawareness, inhabited (not that she knows it) by the past of another woman . . . and tender Norma, who would rather die than condemn her younger rival. In their interreflecting mirrors, Norma and Adalgisa are one for the other the ideal Narcissus—which is what we call love; which is also what we call motherhood. When it directs itself to an absent man, we call it death.
A male critic, Pierre Brunel, hears something of this same “unison of hearts” in the female duet:
The duet, properly called (assai moderato in F major), “O, rimembranza,” admirably displays Norma’s essential psychological motivation: a sympathy based on identification, as the Adalgisa of today merges with the Norma of yesterday. To an accompaniment of arpeggios, a solo flute introduces the melody to which Adalgisa is about to confide her evocation of the beginnings of her love:
Sola, furtiva, al tempio
lo l’aspettai sovente;
Ed ogni di più fervida
Crebbe la fiamma ardente.
Alone, in secret, at the temple
I often waited for him;
And each day more and more fervent
Grew the burning flame.
But already Norma has begun to confide to the identical melody the emotion that she had once felt at the sight of Pollione. So that this duet of confession is at the same time a duet of recognition: ecstatic recognition, at first . . . then more and more troubled, up to the cadenza (“Ah! si!”) which leads into the second movement (più animato , in C major): “Ah si, fa core, abbracciami”—”Ah yes, be brave, embrace me.” Norma, overcome by emotion, takes upon herself the responsibility of releasing Adalgisa from her vows. Adalgisa, in ecstasy, sings the same allegro theme, and asks the older woman to repeat her unexpected encouragement. The duet concludes on a long cadenza for two voices in unison, which gives the impression of a perfect accord.
Similarly, Norma’s mysterious dominion over i druidi —and, ultimately, over the Roman as well—goes beyond mere political power, the occasional and anomalous power of a Semiramis or a Cleopatra or an Elizabeth I. Norma rules them, as she rules us, by her voice. It is far and away the strongest thing in the world this particular opera creates. In fact, there seems to me almost no innately, profoundly female emotion (if a man may risk such speculation) that Norma’s music does not contain. If Callas’s “reedy,” “resinous,” “steely,” “metallic,” “hard-edged,” “swordlike” instrument and her “tigerish” demeanor (typify them as you will) dismayed certain critics enamored of the birdlike purity they preferred in their sopranos, these precise qualities may have allowed her to embody, in this most powerful of female operatic roles (Isolde is all love; Brünnhilde goes out of her mind), all that the soprano voice is capable of expressing of the supreme and independent difference of the gender it represents.
David Littlejohn (1975, revised 1991)
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