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
, 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).
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.”
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.
’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