Bellini’s Norma opera is melodramatic masterpiece

Published on Tue, Nov 24, 2009 by Margot Griffiths

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Vancouver Opera’s Golden Anniversary Season opens with Vincenzo Bellini’s masterpiece, Norma. Performances on November 28, December 1, 3, 5, 2009 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Opera had its birth in Italy, where the word means, quite simply, “a work.” But in strict Italian, “opera” is a “melodrama.” Norma, which was first performed in 1831, at the fabled La Scala Theatre in Milan, is not just a vehicle for exquisite bel canto singing, but a truly dramatic work. The wages of forbidden love results in a tragic, fiery conclusion.

The setting is ancient Gaul during Roman times. Norma is a chief Druid priestess who falls into illicit love with the Roman consul Pollione. Norma is no girlish heroine. Her authority and strength are in contrast to the young, inexperienced priestess, Adalgisa.

When Norma, who has borne Pollione two sons, discovers he is false and that he now loves Adalgisa, she vows vengeance on them both. Yet even in her grief, Norma cannot bring herself to destroy them. Instead, she confesses her own sin and thereby decrees her punishment – death by burning. Pollione, moved by Norma’s self-sacrifice, follows her to the pyre.

The scenes are exotic, and the mythical Druids evoke their paganism with sounds of a gong and the striking of the sacred shield. Equally evocative is the famous aria, “Casta Diva” (Chaste Goddess), Norma’s Act I invocation to the moon.

As she cuts the mistletoe in the sacred Oak grove, she portends the coming fall of Rome. When it comes to drama, this work has real substance.

Opera is most fully captured when one understands the words, and while Norma is sung in Italian, surtitles provide the English translation. To hear her famous arias is one thing, but to have some knowledge of what Norma is thinking and feeling transports the listener to an altogether new level of experience.

Bellini is one of the most celebrated composers of “bel canto” opera (“beautiful singing”). Bel canto can be described as a continuity of tone, the sustaining of a musical passage to create a beautiful, unbroken line.

The Italian language itself is very fluid, with consonants strung together with vowels. Gifted singers make the most of vowel sounds, creating long, continuous spans, smooth in their flow, resulting in light, ethereal arias.

Even Richard Wagner, the forerunner of “Verismo” opera (realism or truth), whose compositions attached more concreteness to pure musical form, championed the “genius” of Bellini, who mastered the beauty of long, extended lines, and portrayed the human soul with a new musical force.

In the opera’s title role is Armenian soprano, Hasmik Papian. Singing a very challenging musical score, she brings virtuosic thrills, along with emotional delicacy and subtle interpretations. Papian is one of the great lyrical dramatic singers, and if you want proof, listen to her on YouTube (this site’s got everything) singing Casta Diva. There’s a liquid joy here, like the soaring and diving of a mercurial bird. See if it doesn’t give you goose bumps, and then imagine hearing her in person.

Singing the role of Pollione is Canadian tenor Richard Margison, an international star at his vocal peak. The publication Opera Canada, has described him as a “wonderfully secure, stentorian Pollione without missing a nuance or note of the role’s sometimes tender lyricism.”

And in the pit conducting the orchestra will be Richard Bonynge, who was artistic director of the Vancouver Opera during the 1970s. He is married to the legendary diva, Dame Joan Sutherland, whose debut performance of Norma was in Vancouver in 1963. In fact, it was this performance, conducted by her husband, that helped catapult the young Sutherland to world-wide fame.

And to think it all started in Vancouver. And so, in a satisfying act of symmetry, the VO opens its 50th year with Norma, conducted by Bonynge – a fitting reunion for a celebrated maestro.

Tickets for this star-studded production of Norma start at $29. Call 604-683-0222, or go to www.vancouveropera.ca.