Norma by Tim Ashley

Never without tears

‘The best thing I have done so far’, Bellini wrote in the autumn of 1831 on completing the score of Norma.  At the premiere, however, at La Scala, Milan in December 26th, the audience was not so sure, and the critics, ludicrous though it may seem, found the ending of the first act weak.  Bellini, ever mindful that psychological veracity should take precedence over structural convention, had brought the curtain down on a hurtling trio of claustrophobic intensity.  Many, expecting a slow-moving finale, complete with spectacular theatricals and the entire cast on stage, found it puzzling.  Bellini was distraught.  ‘A solemn, solemn fiasco,’ he is reported as saying.  Posterity, however, proved his initial judgement to be right.

Even during Bellini’s short life, Norma came to be regarded as ‘the best thing’ he had done, and soon haunted the Western imagination in ways that were in some respects unique.  In northern Europe, where the 19th century artistic intelligentsia considered many Italian operas suspect or vulgar, the impact ran deep.  Liszt was a devotee.  Schopenhauer found it ‘ennobling,’ and Wagner declared that the opera ‘raises itself to the tragic heights of the ancient Greeks,’ and added that it possessed ‘a profound reality’.

That Norma is one of the great tragic works of the 19th century should be beyond dispute though it has not always been accepted as such.  Attitudes towards it have often been coloured by the accretions of legend that surround Bellini, and limit responses to his music.  He was only 33 when he died in 1835, from dysentery in a friend’s villa near Paris.  Shortly afterwards a veritable industry sprang up to canonise him among the ranks of those lost before their time.  He was deemed delicate, fragile, ‘a sigh in silk stockings,’ according to Heinrich Heine, who met him in Paris at the salon of the Princess Belgiojoso and famously prophesied his early demise.  ‘You are a great genius, Bellini,’ Heine told him, ‘but you will pay for your gift with a premature death.  All the great geniuses die young, like Raphael and like Mozart.’  Perglesi, Keats and Shelley were later added to the list of comparisons, and the French publisher Léon Escudier brought another strand of imagery into play, when he described Bellini as ‘sweet as the angels, young as the dawn, melancholy as the sunset’.

‘Melancholy’ remains a word predominately associated with Bellini, classifying him primarily as a composer of elegies.  This derives, in part, from overdue emphasis on one – but only one – aspect of his methodology, namely what Verdi called ‘those long melodies, such as no one else had ever written.’  Norma’s “Casta Diva” is frequently cited as the quintessence of his style, its melody slowly unfolding over an arpeggiated accompaniment, endlessly self-referential, yet rarely repeating itself.  The effect is one of rapt, dreamy beauty, which for many is an end in itself, yet if we examine the aria in context, we notice more subtle forces at play, for when we hear it, we, unlike the Druids, are aware of Norma’s clandestine relationship with Pollione.  We respond to it as do Norma’s followers, with a sense of drowsy wonderment.  Yet we also suspect – and moments later receive confirmation – that its sincerity is questionable and that what we are also witnessing is an act of religious and political manipulation dictated by a hidden agenda.  The aria’s beauty is genuine, but it is also duplicitously hypnotic.

Beneath Bellini’s supposed ‘melancholy’, we often find a profound imagination at work, probing the sexual, emotional and moral ambiguities of the human psyche.  Similarly, if we peer beyond the image of Bellini as a doomed Romantic, we also find a figure more troubling than many have supposed – tough, opportunistic, careerist, even fanatical.  He was born, on November 3rd 1801, into a musical family in Catania, in eastern Sicily.  Many of the stories surrounding his childhood – one of them has him warbling arias at eighteen months – are spurious, though he was probably playing the piano by the time he was six.  When we encounter him as a teenager, however, we find one notable trait emerging that never left him, namely his ability to charm his way into high society.  He made friends with the local duke’s young brother-in-law, with whom he regularly played piano duets, so impressing the duke that he made the Catania town council find the money to send Bellini to the Naples Conservatory.

The local opera house, the Teatro San Carlo, regularly commissioned works from talented Conservatory students, and Bellini headed north, and slaved away at the score of what eventually became Il Prirata.  It brought him overnight success at its first performance in 1827.Il Prirata was significant on a number of counts besides bringing Bellini stardom.  It marked the beginning of his collaboration with the gifted, erudite librettist Felice Romani.  Bellini was finicky about his texts.  ‘Give me good poetry and I shall give you good music,’ he told Romani.  Their collaboration lasted until 1833, when they fell out over Beatrice di Tenda, a failure at its premiere.  Each blamed the other and they fought it out openly in the Italian press, which finally took Romani’s side.  Miffed, Bellini left for London, then Paris, where he hung out with smart set, composed I Puritani and died.

I Puritani took six months to complete, an unusually protracted genesis for an Italian opera in the 1820s.  Bellini was a slow worker, averaging only one opera a year, which many of his contemporaries produced three.  He was painstaking when it came to word setting, frequently taking the inflections of spoken Italian as the starting point for his melodies, striving for a complete fusion of sense, emotion and sound.

The process was draining.  ‘I have to spit blood to compose,’ he wrote in 1828.  His intensity usually found its outlet in tragic subjects, though one thematic thread, which could be described as proto-feminist, runs through his output as a whole.  The emotional weight of most of his operas falls on a central female figure whose psychological destruction is brought about by weak, unstable or brutal men.  Imogene, in I Puritani, slides into insanity when both her husband and her former lover accuse her of sexual betrayal.  Beatrice di Tenda maintains both sanity and integrity in the face of physical torture and marital violence.  Even in La Sonnambula, Bellini’s one swerve away from tragedy, the pattern is similar.  Amina’s fiancé publicly shames her when she sleepwalks into the wrong man’s bedroom on the night before her wedding, her innocence only proven when a second sleepwalking scene puts her life in danger.

Norma, however, is in some ways unique in his output, in that it deals with the impact of male sexual attitudes not on one woman, but on two.  The relationship between Norma, Pollione and Adalgisa plays itself out in an emotional arena, in which the characters’ private and public lives intersect.  What Adalgisa calls the ‘irresistible force of Pollini’s glamour is the catalyst for multiple betrayals across religious and political boundaries.  Pollione is both a coward and a brute, who strikes his responsibilities towards Norma and bullies Adalgisa into submission, all the while lying to both women about his motives.  Norma and Adalgsa are united throughout by the common experience of his betrayal, as their duets tellingly prove.  Yet where Adalgisa, having penetrated Pollini’s essential nature, is able to escape to the moral high ground, for Norma there is no way out.  The tension the opera generates from Bellini’s remorseless exposure of the private hell behind her crumbling iconic public persona.  The ‘beautiful man’, as she calls Pollione, drives her to contemplate infanticide.  In the process, Bellini takes us unflinchingly to the point where a human being has the potential for atrocity, before steering us back to the cathartic finale, in which Norma finally reasserts her lost integrity and brings about Pollione’s moral redemption.

The reasons for Bellini’s identification with the female psyche and his uncompromising view of male desire remain shadowy.  We know less about his personal life than we would wish.  Speculation has long been rife about his sexuality.  His closest emotional tie was with Francesco Florimo, a fellow student in Naples.  ‘My love for you has become necessary to my peace’, Bellini once wrote to him.  No evidence survives as to whether their relationship was ever physical: after Bellini’s death, Florimo took it upon himself to become the composer’s literary executor, destroyed many of his letters and either bowdlerised or fabricated others.  What he may have covered up will never be known.

Away from Florimo, Bellini behaved in a manner that disconcertingly brings many of his own male characters to mind.  He became involved in a series of affairs with married women, invariably bolting when marital breakdown loomed.  Towards the end of his life, he was coldly contemplating marrying for money.  While he was working on Norma, he was thinking of ditching his then mistress Giuditta Turina to marry the daughter of one of his closest friends, the soprano Guiditta Pasta, for whom the opera was written.  Pasta was the greatest singing actress of her day, a mesmerising artist, who compensated for occasionally faulty vocal production with exceptional dramatic powers.  Bellini wrote Norma for her Scala debut.  ‘It will be absolutely ideal for your encyclopaedic character’, Bellini told her.

Fundamental to Bellini’s methodology was his equation of emotional probing with the almost naked exposure of the human voice, supported by the sparest of accompaniments, and in creating the character of Norma for Pasta, he went to extremes.  Few psychological portraits in opera have ever proved more complete or compelling, as Norma’s vocal line swerves from declamatory pain to lyrical rapture, from coloratura frenzy to the often devastating simplicity of the final scenes – and no role has proved more difficult in the entire repertoire.  Norma remains the most formidable challenge any soprano can face.  Maria Callas, with whom Pasta has often been compared and was, for many, the greatest Norma of the 20th century, declared that with each performance, she had to ‘work as if I had never sung it before.’  The great 19th century soprano Lilli Lehmann, meanwhile, resolutely refused to tackle it until she felt secure with Beethoven’s Leonore and Wagner’s Isolde. ‘It must be sung and acted with fanatical consecration,’ she said.  It was a statement of which Bellini would doubtless have approved.  ‘Opera,’ he wrote, ‘must make you weep, shudder and even die through singing‘.  Mahler once confessed he was unable to listen to Norma without tears.  Wagner, meanwhile, was once so carried away during a performance of the final scene that he declared that the opera had been written not by Bellini but by God.  For some reason his statement seems preposterous, though many, as the beauty, nobility and horror of Bellini’s great tragedy unfolds before them, would also be tempted to agree.