Norma : The Essence of Melodyby Jacques Desjardins
/ September 22, 2005
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
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
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. *
Norma will be performed at the Opéra de
Montréal (September 17, 21, 24, 26, 29 and October 1, 514-985-2258) and at the
Canadian Opera Company in Toronto (March 30, April 4, 7, 9, 12 and 15,