Norma

MUSIC BY Vincenzo BellinI

Libretto by Felice Romani

NEW PRODUCTION

Perhaps once a generation, a soprano comes along who can do full justice to one of opera’s most dazzling and demanding roles. Today, that singer is Sondra Radvanovsky, who “earned a thunderous ovation…her top notes ringing and powerful, her middle range velvety, her coloratura nimble and phrasing elegant” (The New York Times), when she debuted as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera this past fall. In Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, a Druid high priestess betrays her people by falling in love with an occupying Roman soldier. When the soldier abandons her for another, her volatile mix of anger and guilt threatens the lives of the innocent and guilty alike. Kevin Newbury, praised by Opera News for his thoughtfulness and eye for detail, stages this exciting new production. Music Director Nicola Luisotti's superb cast also features the San Francisco Opera debut of Jamie Barton, whose Adalgisa at the Metropolitan Opera was hailed as “a revelation” (The New York Times). The “ardent, expressive” Marco Berti (The New York Times) and “enormous, fresh, exuberant tenor” Russell Thomas (Opera News) share the role of Pollione.

For a complete listing of all Norma performances at San Francisco Opera, visit our online performance archive.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including one intermission

Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the Opera House in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain (except Opening Night, Sep 5, 2014).

Co-production with Canadian Opera Company, Gran Teatre del Liceu and Lyric Opera of Chicago

Audio excerpts are from the 1982 performance of 
Norma with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Richard Bonynge.
Casta diva”/Joan Sutherland (Norma); “Meco all’altar di Venere”/Ermanno Mauro (Pollione); “Deh! Con te li prendi”/Joan Sutherland; “Sì, fino all’ore estreme”/Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne (Adalgisa); “Guerra, Guerra!”/Chorus


Cast

Norma Sondra Radvanovsky
Adalgisa Jamie Barton *
Pollione Marco Berti Sep 5, 10
Pollione Russell Thomas * Sep 14, 19, 23, 27, 30
Oroveso Christian Van Horn
Clotilda Jacqueline Piccolino
Flavio A.J. Glueckert

Production Credits

Conductor Nicola Luisotti
Director Kevin Newbury
Set Designer David Korins
Costume Designer Jessica Jahn *
Lighting Designer D.M. Wood *
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Fight Director Dave Maier

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

ACT I
Gaul, 50 BCE, during the Roman occupation.

In a forest at night, the priest Oroveso leads the Druids in a prayer for revenge against the conquering Romans. After they have left, the Roman proconsul Pollione admits to his friend Flavio that he no longer loves the high priestess Norma, Oroveso’s daughter, with whom he has two children. He has fallen in love with a young novice priestess, Adalgisa, who returns his love. Flavio warns him against Norma’s anger. The Druids assemble and Norma prays to the moon goddess for peace. She tells her people that as soon as the moment for their uprising against the conquerors arrives, she herself will lead the revolt. At the same time, she realizes that she could never harm Pollione. When the grove is deserted, Adalgisa appears and asks for strength to resist Pollione. He finds her crying and urges her to flee with him to Rome. She agrees to renounce her vows.

Norma tells her confidante Clotilde that Pollione has been recalled to Rome. She is afraid that he will desert her and their children. Adalgisa confesses to Norma that she has a lover. Recalling the beginning of her own love affair, Norma is about to release Adalgisa from her vows and asks for the name of her lover. As Pollione appears, Adalgisa answers truthfully. Norma’s kindness turns to fury. She tells Adalgisa about her own betrayal by the Roman soldier. Pollione confesses his love for Adalgisa and asks her again to come away with him, but she refuses and vows she would rather die than steal him from Norma.

ACT II

Norma, dagger in hand, tries to bring herself to murder her children in their sleep to protect them from living disgracefully without a father. She changes her mind and summons Adalgisa, advising her to marry Pollione and take the children to Rome. Adalgisa refuses: she will go to Pollione, but only to persuade him to return to Norma. Overcome by emotion, Norma embraces her, and the women reaffirm their friendship.

The Druids assemble at their altar to hear Oroveso’s announcement that a new commander will replace Pollione. Oroveso rages against the Roman oppression, but tells the Druids that they must be patient to ensure the success of the eventual revolt.

Norma is stunned to hear from Clotilde that Adalgisa’s pleas have not persuaded Pollione, and in a rage she urges her people to attack the conquerors. Oroveso demands a sacrificial victim, and just then Pollione is brought in, having profaned the sanctuary. Alone with him, Norma promises him his freedom if he will leave Adalgisa and return to her. When he refuses, Norma threatens to kill him and their children, and to punish Adalgisa. She calls in the Druids and tells them that a guilty priestess must die, then confesses that she is referring to herself. Moved by her nobility, Pollione asks to share her fate. Norma begs Oroveso to watch over her children, then leads her lover to the pyre.

Setting Norma: Bellini and His Librettist

Thomas May

Many valid comparisons can be—and have been—made between the film industry and opera as it was practiced in the golden era of bel canto in nineteenth-century Italy: the popular appeal of these media, their value as art versus “mere” entertainment, the clout of star performers, or the grueling, nervous-breakdown-inducing production schedules to get a new work “in the can.”


Another comparison that is especially intriguing is the parallel between screenwriters and librettists. To create a commercially viable film or opera that aspires to be something more than the run-of-the-mill competition, the practitioners of these respective crafts must walk a fine line. The indispensable qualification for that goal: being able to negotiate a tricky balance between artistic ambition and originality on the one hand, and generally understood conventions that define audience expectations on the other.
 
And on top of that, the collaborative nature of both media requires a virtuosic level of flexibility from our hypothetical screenwriter or nineteenth-century Italian librettist. In Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, the acclaimed musicologist and opera historian Philip Gossett discusses the intimidating skill set essential for a reliable librettist working in the early nineteenth century, the period of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.  
 
Gossett handily summarizes the parameters a librettist had to master just to shape the overall structure for an effective libretto: “The order of the pieces, proper and physically reasonable demands on the capacities of singers, a concern for brevity, an awareness of the difference between the requirements of spoken drama and opera, the clarity of structure of individual numbers [divisions of musical pieces such as arias, duets, etc., in an opera]—all were basic to the proper layout of a musical drama.”
 
However, one area where the librettist–screenwriter analogy breaks down has to do with the relative invisibility of this role. True, the sense in which a screenwriter complains about being taken for granted might apply equally well to librettists as far as most of today’s audiences are concerned. (How many can opera fans immediately know the composers but are at a loss when it comes to naming the librettists of The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, or Tosca?) But such thanklessness was not necessarily the case during Bellini’s own era—and certainly not when it comes to the man who penned the verse for Norma’s libretto, Felice Romani (1788–1865).
 
While contemporary audiences generally experience a libretto as a CNN-like ticker of formless text via titles, Romani and his peers wrote their librettos with the expectation that they would be specially printed for the audiences in formats that preserved the integrity of the meter and layout of their verses. Composers, too, didn’t just “set” random groupings of words. “By purely poetic means, then (the use of different meters, the use of stanzas of verse for a single character, the use of dialogue, etc.),” Gossett explains, “librettists—often in consultation with the composer—materially influenced the structure and character of both the entire opera and each individual piece.” A poet like Romani, in short, structured the opera’s story in poetry that in turn “shaped important musical decisions” (such as where the mood of an aria or duet will alter dramatically). 


Felice Romani
Bridgeman Art Library
 
The musicologist Alessandro Roccatagliati, an expert on Romani, points out that the librettist was regarded as a “great poet” who enjoyed a “longstanding and illustrious reputation.” Bellini, a native of Catania, Sicily, was thirteen years younger than Romani and had just turned thirty before Norma premiered on December 26, 1831, at La Scala in Milan, but he was already at the peak of his sadly short-lived career. Only two of the ten operas that became his legacy were yet to be composed. Norma has long been considered the crown jewel not only of Bellini’s oeuvre but of bel canto tragedy in general. And along with the beauty and dramatic potency of Bellini’s score, credit for that longevity must also be ascribed to what his artistic partner Romani achieved with his libretto for Norma.
 
Because of radical changes in the development of opera, the vast majority of the bel canto literature took a nosedive into obscurity within a few decades, but Norma never fell completely out of the repertory. Whatever distortions or abuse—dramatic as well as musical—Norma suffered as the older performance traditions altered or died out, Bellini’s masterpiece remained a lone flame preserving the memory of one of the most glorious periods in the history of this art form.
 
And thanks to the legendary interpretations of the title role by artists like Rosa Ponselle (early in the twentieth century) and, above all, Maria Callas, Norma helped spur the spectacular revival of interest in neglected operas by Bellini and his peers—a revival that started gaining serious momentum in the middle of the last century and that continues in the present.
 
Within a few years of the launch of Bellini’s professional career in Naples, Gioachino Rossini—the reigning giant of Italian bel canto opera—had retired. Soon Bellini stood out from a crowded field of fellow contenders (including at first, the slightly older Gaetano Donizetti), and he was able to establish close-knit working relationships with such leading collaborators as Romani and the soprano Giuditta Pasta, who created the role of Norma. 
 
In the recent A History of Opera, jointly written by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, the authors describe the quality that was Bellini’s “unique marker” and that made him stand out from his contemporaries, including Donizetti: “His gift was to imagine melody, extended arcs and lines that could poise human voices to break hearts on the turn of the smallest creative phrase.”

Vincenzo Bellini
Bridgeman Art Library
 
Bellini’s great fortune was to find in the already acclaimed Romani the ideal collaborator who could understand that gift not only as a pure musical phenomenon, but for its dramatic potential—its capacity to create genuinely thrilling music drama. Evidence for their special working relationship, which began with the opera Il Pirata in 1827 (the composer’s first big success in Milan), can be seen by way of negation in the unfortunate rift that broke up their partnership. With Beatrice di Tenda, the opera that followed Norma, Romani was unable to summon the enthusiasm for the plot shared by Bellini and Pasta. Deadlines were missed, to the point of endangering the premiere and necessitating last-minute compromises, and the outraged composer broke off from his librettist. Bellini then moved to the opera capital of Paris, where he produced his final opera, I Puritani, using a novice librettist.
 
The much-in-demand Romani tended to have too many commitments on his plate at any one time. Reports of the genesis of operas during this period are replete with nail-biting episodes of composers anxiously waiting for agreed-upon librettos to be able to compose in time for a production’s scheduled opening. Yet as in so many other ways, the situation with Norma was different. Because Bellini and Romani lived in close proximity in Milan during its genesis, we lack the kinds of revealing aesthetic declarations that a regular correspondence might have prompted—as with Verdi and his librettists. But we can glean a sense of the specialness of this project from Bellini’s excited initial report of it to Pasta, who had not yet appeared at La Scala (quite unusually, as she was also well known by this time) and would make her debut there as Norma.
 
“Romani believes it will be very effective, and absolutely ideal for your encyclopedic character, because that’s the sort of character Norma has. He will design the scenes in such a way that they bear no resemblance to other subjects, and touch up the characters, and even change them, if that proves necessary to get the best effect.” The phrase “encyclopedic character”—it applies equally to Norma and to her interpreter—is often cited, but the promised uniqueness of the subject as opera material is also worth noting. Norma smashes the stereotypes that are still apt to come up in any discussion of bel canto opera: that it’s ruled by simple formulas; that the music and librettos have no organic connection; that the librettos are hackwork, easily interchangeable with each other; that the stars cast in a production might as well be singing from the telephone book, so irrelevant are the actual texts.
 
Romani’s wife, Emilia Branca, wrote an influential biography of the librettist that, while admittedly biased, gives us another glimpse into the unusual genesis of Norma. The lengths to which Bellini persuaded (or perhaps assailed) the respected writer to hone and tweak must have been exceptional. Looking back decades after the fact, Branca claims that her late husband had essentially written “more than three Normas” if one were to add up “all the variants that we have found, all of them beautiful.”
 
Although Bellini did develop a habit of writing down melodies on their own—what he called his “morning exercises”—to be assigned to particular texts later, there is no question of his preoccupation with getting the words just right. ““His preferred method was to involve himself extensively in the making of the libretto,” write Abbate and Parker, “frequently insisting on revisions and ensuring that the text was precisely what his music needed.” Rossini himself praised the pivotal second-act duet between Norma and Pollione for Bellini’s sensitive treatment of the text: “The words are so enmeshed in the notes and the notes in the words that together they form a complete and perfect whole.”
 
But Romani had reasons of his own to become so wrapped up in this subject matter. The immediate source was a recently produced stage work he had selected to adapt: in this case, the five-act verse tragedy Norma by French playwright Alexandre Soumet. Such adaptations were frequent in this era of loose-to-nonexistent intellectual property law. And Pasta, Bellini assumes, would have already been familiar with the material from Soumet’s play, since it had just opened in April 1831 in Paris, where she was singing.
 

Giuditta Pasta, originator of the role of Norma
Bridgeman Art Library
 
In his excellent study of Norma for the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series, David Kimbell teases out multiple strands braided together by Soumet’s play that must have had special resonance for Romani. The librettist had spent an earlier chapter of his life as a professional classical scholar and had even collaborated on a six-volume Dictionary of Every Mythology and Antiquity, whose scope (as the ambitious title indicates) goes well beyond the familiar ancient classical domain to consider other societies like the Druids and the Celtic world.
 
Kimbell combs from this other encyclopedic work to cite definitions of terms used in Norma’s libretto. The mysterious eubagi (“eubages”) mentioned in the procession of “Druids, priestesses, warriors, bards,” and the like in the first act are defined as a “category of priests or philosophers among the Celts or Gauls… a group of Druids who spent their time in research and in the contemplation of the mysteries of nature” or “seers” in short. The masculine god Irminsul, who functions as the polar opposite of the peaceful moon goddess invoked by Norma in her celebrated entrance, may have been a Mars-like god of war or “the famous Irmin, whom the Romans called Arminio, the conqueror of Varus and the avenger of German liberty.” Elsewhere he is associated with “nothing but the trunk of a tree stripped of its branches” (trees being worshipped by the “ancient Saxons”). Romani had even penned a libretto in 1820 for another composer that was titled La Sacerdotessa d’Irminsul (The Priestess of Irminsul).
 
 
The erudite Romani would similarly have known of the Germanic prophetess Velleda as described by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus and later transformed by the early Romantic writer Chateaubriand into a striking Gallic character in his prose epic Les Martyrs. And Romani’s scholarly work in comparative mythology would have primed him for the “otherness” of Norma, which straddles various worlds. There are obvious echoes of the harrowing ancient Greek myth of Medea (who in fact does murder her children, in contrast to the passionate but ultimately self-controlled Druid priestess), references to the ancient Rome from which Pollione and his fellow invaders have come, and traces of the classic Roman historians of the Northern campaigns. Yet the familiar Mediterranean terrain in which so many tragic operas before the emergence of Romanticism were anchored is here replaced by something new:  “the opera as a whole is very differently located, amid the impenetrable forests of northern Europe, bathed in moonlight rather than sun-drenched,” writes Kimbell.

That Norma’s fundamental scenario of invading (and resented) imperial overlords had political implications in Risorgimento Italy is only underlined by the trouble Romani had over some portions of his text with the censors in Milan, who feared comparisons between the Austrian rulers and the Romans. (Negotiating that sticky thicket was yet another task that fell among a librettist’s responsibilities in these years.) The diplomatic Romani prevailed in allowing the brief but rousing war hymn at the climax of act two (“Guerra, guerra!”). San Francisco Opera’s production, incidentally, restores a passage that is usually cut from the end of this chorus. That choral passage, a sudden calm after the violent fury preceding it, replicates the shift to a sequence of serenely floating harmonies that appears like an oasis amid the agitated music of the Overture.
 
Still, it would be a mistake to read into Norma overtly revolutionary messages of the sort that became associated with many of Verdi’s operas. Indeed, as Kimbell points out, Norma’s imposing entrance later in Act One—all the more effective for its deferral—emphasizes ‘“the need to temper revolutionary fervor with patience” and thus may imply a counterrevolutionary critique of the failed uprisings that had occurred earlier in 1831, the year of the opera’s premiere.
 
Aesthetically, too, Norma is a masterpiece not because of any revolutionary shattering of conventions but precisely because of its brilliant synthesis of bel canto operatic practice with Bellini’s unique musical gift and Romani’s careful, sensitive shaping of his text to sustain that gift at its highest level. The perfectionism of composer and librettist here becomes mutually reinforcing.
 
Richard Wagner took notorious aim at the weaknesses he singled out in bel canto opera, thereby perpetuating the commonly held perception of the disconnect between words and music—of the downright irrelevance of the words—in the opera of this period. But Norma, which he conducted early in his career, always held a special place in his heart—even long after bel canto had virtually vanished and become a wistful dream of the past. “But in his Norma,” Wagner acknowledged, “indisputably his most successful creation, Bellini provides a demonstration of how serviceable this style [the “style of the Italians”] can be, particularly with some operatic subjects. Here, where even the poetry raises itself to the tragic heights of the ancient Greeks, this [Italian] sense of form, which Bellini most decidedly ennobles, serves only to heighten the solemn and grandiose character of the whole. All the passions, transfigured in so singular a fashion by his song, derive therefrom a majestic solidity and well-foundedness.”
 
Thomas May writes frequently for San Francisco Opera and blogs at memeteria.com.

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Director's Note

Kevin Newbury

Bellini’s Norma is a story about the rituals of sacrifice, both public and private, and informs the entire opera: from the Druid community’s collective sacrifice during wartime to Norma’s threatened sacrifice of her own children and, ultimately, her own life.


While little is known about actual Druid religious rituals, mythology suggests that human and animal sacrifice were central to the Druid ethos. In researching ancient Druid and Gaulish mythology, my design team and I were drawn to these images of sacrifice— like the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe involving the slaughter of two white bulls, as described by Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. We were also inspired by images of “sacred forests” and legends that envisaged trees as the physical manifestation of the Gods. As the opera illustrates, burning effigies seem to have been central to Druid rituals, often taking the form of a wooden or wicker man or other such sculptural representations of human beings or animals. The timing of our Norma seems especially appropriate since many San Franciscans are preparing for the annual Burning Man Festival.

The foreboding door to the outside world, the totem bullheads on the wall, and the miniature elements of war in Norma’s children’s nursery all reflect this world of sacrifice and conflict. Our space is both a temple and a war factory—as the Druids work to build a war machine to unleash upon the occupying Romans. In our production, the entire chorus is preparing the war effort: their distinct clothes, hair, and tattoos all augment the feeling of a unified community pursuing a common cause. Although we have set the production in a mythic, Game of Thrones–inspired milieu, Norma feels very contemporary to me. Norma’s children are already being indoctrinated into a world of war, with its requisite betrayals and sacrifices. In rehearsals, the nursery has become the emotional heart of the opera. Especially in the hands of the gifted singing actress Sondra Radvanovsky, Norma’s moments with her children are deeply moving. Her rumination about whether or not to kill her own children envisions both a Medea-like act of revenge and an act of protection from the violent world she knows awaits them (as in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning Beloved). Norma breaks the cycles of violence as she turns the war machine into an effigy and the instrument of her ultimate sacrifice.

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Past San Francisco Opera Norma Casts

 


Gina Cigna was our first Norma, in 1937
Morton



Clifford Grant as Oroveso in 1972
Carolyn Mason Jones


Rita Hunter (Norma) and Tatiana Troyanos (Adalgisa) in 1975
Ron Scherl


Act One of the 1975 production
Ron Scherl


Shirley Verrett sang the title role in 1978

Ron Scherl


The legendary team of Joan Sutherland (Norma) and Marilyn Horne (Adalgisa) in 1982
Ron Scherl


Michael Sylvester (Pollione), Carol Vaness (Norma), and Anna Caterina Antonacci (Adalgisa)
Marty Sohl


Zoran Todorovich as Pollione in 2005
Terrence McCarthy


For a complete list of all past Norma casts at San Francisco Opera
visit our online performance archive.

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"To hear the score of Bellini's Norma sung with splendor, beauty and conviction, there was no better place to be on Friday night than the War Memorial Opera House."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Music director Nicola Luisotti led a taut and keen-edged performance by the Opera Orchestra."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"It was a night to revel in vocal and orchestral splendor."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky gave an extraordinary performance of sustained power and great beauty, comparable to those of fabled stars in the Company's long and distinguished history."

  –San Francisco Examiner
Jamie Barton made "a magnificent Company debut with gleaming vocal tone and emotional urgency."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Radvanovsky and Barton's "tightly harmonized voices were like twin kites, flying through coloratura runs and roulades in flawless formation."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Tenor Marco Berti sang with vigor and charisma that made his dangerous magnetism manifest."

–San Francisco Classical Voice

"Radvanovsky ruled the stage and house with a powerful vocal and dramatic presence; three hours later, she still held the audience in her hands."

SF Examiner
 
Barton's voice "is like a French horn, with its mysterious sound, deep and wide -- a comfort, calling the listener home to the nest. She is a singer of calming power and grace, of confessional expression."
­
SJ Mercury News
 
Barton's mezzo soprano "had caressing warmth on its own and married admirably to Radvanovsky’s more powerful instrument in their duets and ensembles. Traveling together in burnished, richly ornamented thirds, the women’s voices filled the house with floral, flowing lines."

–SF Classical Voice
 
"Christian Van Horn was commanding, his voice penetrating and well-lathed."
SJ Mercury News
 
"A.J. Glueckert was vigorous and clear-voiced as Flavio."

SJ Mercury News
 
"Jacqueline Piccolino was velvety-voiced as Clotilde"

SJ Mercury News
 
"Radvanovsky created a Norma of deep, oceanic feelings...she was Norma to the gripping, fragile core" 

  –San Francisco Classical Voice

PERFORMANCES

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*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors

Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by Opening Weekend Grand Sponsor Diane B. Wilsey, Thomas and Barbara Wolfe, Koret Foundation and Tad and Dianne Taube. Major support for this production also provided by the Great Interpreters of Italian Opera Fund established by Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem. Nicola Luisotti’s appearance made possible by Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, Chairs, Amici di Nicola of Camerata. Ms. Radvanovsky’s and Mr. Berti’s appearances are made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.
 
 
  

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.