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So much more than “Casta Diva”

Sesto Quatrini recommends 5 other key numbers of 'Norma'

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
6 min.

Heard in movies as diverse as The Iron Lady, 2046 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, "Casta Diva" is one of the most famous arias (more precisely, a cavatina) in operatic history. But there is much more to Norma than this piece alone. The Italian conductor Sesto Quatrini explores five other unforgettable extracts.

Some videoconference sessions are more interesting than others. Only very few, however, can rival with the privilege of having a conductor all to yourself, as he delves into the score he is about to conduct in your opera house. "While the language of the libretto is beautiful," Sesto Quatrini begins, "and deeply poetic, allowing the composer to invent some wonderful melodies, the story is not particularly innovative. It is the usual Italian opera love triangle. Hence the need to develop the characters through music, which acts as a mirror for their emotions. The most crucial element that distinguishes Bellini from Donizetti or Verdi is his use of pauses, of silence. Today, whether in Brussels, Milan or New York, we no longer hear silence. During the period in which Bellini composed Norma, La sonnambula, I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Beatrice di Tenda, he lived on the shores of Lake Como, a much more peaceful place than Milan where he had previously lived and Paris where he later lived. Silences are part of his dramaturgy, in the form of climaxes, pianissimos, moments of suspense.”

When we ask him which parts of the work he prefers, the conductor doesn’t need to think twice before replying “everything”. However, he puts himself to the test and selects five moments to which the public should pay particular attention.

AT THE TEMPLE OF IRMINSUL

"The scene begins with a prayer by Adalgisa, whose introduction is quite long, with many ostinatos (editor's note: rhythmic, melodic or harmonic repetitions), evoking her restless search for inner peace. The hymn itself is a largo in which she asks for the protection of the gods with a very simple orchestral accompaniment highlighting the beautiful and rather sophisticated vocal line, which should be sung as pianissimo as possible. This makes the music all the more intimate and beautiful, almost like a Schubert song.

Immediately afterwards there is the first duet between Adalgisa and Pollione. It is rather long and based on three chords very common in Italian music but with more daring harmonies. It is both intense and spirited. Bellini uses different tempi, plenty of silences, and fortes to symbolise Pollione's jealousy. The ensemble is vocally virtuoso and offers us a very contrasting representation of love in pain: a love in struggle, close to a military march on the one hand, and an almost childish love that the characters whisper to each other on the other.

OH! RIMEMBRANZA

"The second duet that follows between Norma and Adalgisa is another masterpiece. The young priestess confesses to her friend that she has fallen in love with a Roman. As she describes her feelings, Norma recalls her own relationship with Pollione. The composer gives the memories space by alternating modulation and silence, with nothing but pizzicati in the orchestral background and a counterpoint cello solo that expresses the melancholic pain accompanying this reverie. This passage is very representative of the Neapolitan school of Italian bel canto, combining a classical form with a very romantic use of melody and harmonies, close to Sturm und Drang.

The resolution of the duet almost resembles a Chopin ballad and segues in a highly original way directly into the final trio (Pollione joins them) of the first act, taking material from the opening sinfonia. It was very unusual in Italian opera at the time to have not just numbers but actually a continuous musical and dramatic line for almost thirty-five minutes. Even so, there's not a lot of fireworks going on: a few chords, a couple of unexpected modulations... It's a real challenge for the conductor, the staging and the soloists and even for the audience."

MIRA, O NORMA

"The second act is also full of beautiful music, right from the start, with a new solo for cello. Bellini often used this instrument or a horn to personify sadness. The duet Mira, o Norma is a must. This is the moment when Adalgisa persuades Norma not to murder the illegitimate children she has had with Pollione. The first two pages of this excerpt are among the most beautiful in the repertoire, especially when the two voices join and cross each other in intimate and moving vocalisations. I am convinced that everyone will love this moment, especially with the first-rate soloists we have in this production... It's only two small pages in the score but this melody is unforgettable."

GUERRIERI !

"You then have a long choral passage with Oroveso. The Gallic warriors are about to attack but the druid tells them that the gods are not yet on their side and that they must wait. The choruses in Bellini's operas are very different from those in other bel canto works, where they are almost like a Greek chorus, a watchful presence. In Norma, they participate in the action, they represent a community, they judge the protagonist's behaviour and the composer includes them in the recitatives, which represents a technical difficulty: to make a hundred people "speak" rhythmically to ensure that the text is understandable. So this is a dialogue between Oroveso and the choirs and I think it's important to keep it in its full length, without any cuts (contrary to what is often done), as this scene gives you the impression of surfing on a wave of notes and tempi.”

FINALE

"But what really makes this opera great is its finale. From the sixth number of the second act to the last chord, you have a continuous chain of arias, choruses, ariosos, confrontation scenes where nothing can be left out. Simultaneously, you have the coming war and the heroine's doubts until her confession and sacrifice. Bellini has reached the composition’s pinnacle. The simplicity of the last pages approaches the purity of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words. And, once again, the role of the music here is not to tell the story but to sublimate the emotions of the characters. In my opinion, it was the finale that made this opera one of the most important in operatic history”.

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