LAWRENCE BUDMEN attended
a concert performance of Bellini's 'Norma'
Vicenzo Bellini's 1831 operatic masterpiece Norma is the ultimate personification of bel canto (beautiful singing). Lyrical cantabile arias and florid vocal display pieces were the essence of operas by such early nineteenth century composers as Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and especially Vicenzo Bellini. (The vocal and instrumental writing of Mozart had a palpable influence on these composers.) These scores required singers with a beautifully produced, expressive sound and great vocal agility. Norma marked the climax of the bel canto era. The operas of Giuseppe Verdi would lead the art form to a new level of 'music drama'. Yet the beauty of Bellini's arias and ensembles would leave a lasting mark on operatic history. No less a music dramatist than Richard Wagner admired Norma. (He referred to Bellini as 'the gentle Sicilian'.) Bellini's inspired melodies (by turns gentle and rousing) received a passionate, vociferous performance on 16 January 2004 at the Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, USA, when the Concert Association of Florida presented a brilliant concert version of Norma.
The story of the Druid Priestess Norma (who breaks her vows and has an affair with the Roman Proconsul Pollione, the oppressor of her people) inspired Bellini to compose some of his most divine melodies. The great soprano aria 'Casta Diva' has one of the most beautiful melodic lines in all opera. The duet for soprano and mezzo 'Mira o Norma' and its glittering cabaletta are distinguished by daring harmonics and challenging pyrotechnics. The composer expected four great singers for the leading roles -- artists with beautiful voices and power and stamina to spare. If the cast of this ambitious production was less than perfect, the four artists were all world class singers who delivered some thrilling vocalism.
The opera's title role requires a soprano with the dramatic power to sing high-lying declamation over the full orchestra and chorus. Yet she must also be able to sing a delicate cantabile line (with beautiful pianissimos) and brilliant coloratura. Singers with these super human talents are always rare. Over the past half century Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Monserrat Caballé have set the standard for this fiendishly difficult role. Recently Jane Eaglin, Christine Goerke, Galina Gorshakova, and Lauren Flanagan have attempted the role with varying degrees of success.
Copyright © 20 January 2004
Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA