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Norma : The Essence of Melody – by Jacques Desjardins

by Luca

Unlike his famous contemporary Rossini, who could deliver operas in a few days, Bellini insisted on spending a few months on the composition of his works. At the time of his sudden death in 1835, Bellini had composed a mere ten operas – a poor record compared to Rossini, who by the age of 28, had completed 28. Nonetheless, the last of Bellini’s operas, La Sonnambula, Norma, and I Puritani are undisputed masterpieces, with Norma being more renowed due to its famous aria “Casta Diva.”
Premiered on December 26, 1831, at La Scala in Milan, the opera was far from being an instantaneous success. Even Bellini considered it a fiasco. Overworked at the dress rehearsal earlier that day, the singers, including Giuditta Pasta, the first Norma, suffered from serious intonation problems. Fortunately, the cast managed to rally together for the following performance. The critics were overwhelmed and the cast was granted thunderous applause. Norma had assumed its rightful place in the repertoire.
Bellini differs from Rossini by the purity of the melodic line and the absence of gratuitous ornaments. His arias often linger in our minds because of the logic of the melodic direction: their natural fiow and compelling aural attractiveness make them comparable to “hits” in the popular sense of the term, but without the commercial ingredients of instant gratification and easy seductive power. The most famous aria, “Casta Diva” deserves closer inspection in order to grasp its stunning beauty and Bellini’s melodic genius.
The aria is divided into three parts: 1) the main melody sung solo by Norma; 2) the choir, which breaks quietly into a chorus and above which Norma passionately sings an ornamented line in the high register; 3) reprise of the opening solo melody on a new text with the addition of syllabic punctuation by the choir.
The key of F major is established by an orchestral introduction whose even rhythm on a 12/8 meter is secured by an arpeggio in the violins, and chords on the strong beats in the cellos and double basses. The fiute announces the aria with an almost complete quote of the melody. The strings stop and the fiute elegantly disappears, doubled by the clarinet. The even rhythm returns in the strings for one measure until the soloist begins her aria with a contrapuntal line to the violin arpeggio.
While the violins keep a steady eighth-note rhythm, the soloist uses unequal note values (long notes followed by short ones) to better emphasize the tonic accents of the text. The singer may then rely on the stability of the accompaniment to help anchor the key moments of the aria. Without the violin arpeggio, it would be very difficult for the singer, perhaps even impossible, to render precisely the pulse and rhythms of the melody.

The short notes of the aria serve as elegant ornaments, allowing the energy contained in the longer note values to finally be released. They also enable the line to land leisurely on the next long note, thus better projecting the following tonic accent. Bellini has therefore realized a successful marriage between notated music and the natural musicality of the Italian language. The first few bars of the aria provide strong evidence of this relationship. In the phrase “Casta Diva, che inargenti,” the syllables “Ca,” “Di,” and “gen” are each given a long note on the first beat of the measure. Such awareness of prosody is certainly not exclusive to Bellini. However, the composer distinguishes himself from his contemporaries and his predecessors by the discreet meandering of the melismas, which inescapably carry the listener to the next tonic accent on the following strong beat. With Rossini, for example, the melismas take as much room as the projection of the text, sometimes at the expense of word comprehension. Bellini prefers to relegate the melismas to the background, like decorations which prepare or extend important syllables. The resulting music is perceived with a sense of perspective: the long notes in the foreground, which carry the major tonic accents, and the short notes, in the background, which ornament the first ones with refinement and discretion.
It is also important to emphasize the remarkable command with which Bellini has planned his registers. The aria begins in the low-medium range of the soprano voice on an A natural. Two measures late, the melody leisurely falls to the low F, only to surprisingly reemerge up to the high D on the staff. Bellini stays in the medium range during the second phrase – “queste sacre antiche piante” – keeping this same D as the highest pitch. The third phrase, “a noi volgi il bel sembiante,” is when the composer decides to orchestrate a gradual rise in register spanning four complete measures. This ascension eventually leads in steps to a high A, repeated with intensity, then resolves itself with force on a B fiat, the highest note and undisputed climax of the aria. Bellini then releases all this energy with a dramatic descent spanning only two measures, from the high B fiat down to the low F. While it had taken a little more than four measures to reach the apex of the melody, Bellini took a bit less than half of this space to cover the complete register of the voice and smoothly return back to the opening register.
Once the low F has been reached again, the choristers begin the second section of the piece, repeating the complete text of the first section. Norma joins them two measures later with chromatic melismas in the high register, the virtuosity of which requires absolute vocal control from the soloist in order to properly convey the moment’s graceful and solemn character.
The third section repeats the same music as the first, this time with the choir striking the pulse together with the lower strings. The aria ends with an impressive out-of-tempo cadenza, a chromatic descent once again covering the complete ambitus of the voice, in a time frame spanning less than a measure.
This ability to contain energy until released at exactly the right moment, and the refinement with which the ornaments always remain at the service of the music undoubtedly vouch for Bellni’s genius. A work of transition between Rossini’s bel canto and Verdi’s romantic opera, Norma will forever retain its place in the lyrical repertoire, not only because of its dramatic qualities, but also because of the gracefulness and subtlety of its melodic conception. *