Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1805) was born in Catania, Sicily, and died in Puteaux near Paris, aged only thirty-three. In his tragically short life, he was one of the most admired and talked about composers of his era. His innate gift for soft, flowing, often ethereal and always expressive melodic writing, quite unique in its genre, had a considerable impact on many composers of the 19th century. Bellini’s operas were greatly admired not only by Frédéric Chopin, who had a strong affection for Bellini’s music, and whose piano compositions bear a certain spiritual resemblance to Bellini’s melancholic cantilenas, but also by Richard Wagner, whose deep and sincere admiration for the score of Norma has been well documented. Bellini’s influence on the Italian composers – the young Giuseppe Verdi in particular – has been often cited. But the influence did not stop there; it would linger well into the 20th century.

     Bellini’s artistic style developed during the formative years spent at the Naples Conservatory in the early 1820s under the guidance of Niccolò Zingarelli, a composer of considerable reputation. Zingarelli was strongly opposed to an operatic style which included a complex, rich orchestration and elaborate vocal ornamentation, the latter perceived empty and superfluous (these, for instance, were prominent features of Gioachino Rossini’s operatic writing). Instead, Zingarelli encouraged his young student to focus almost exclusively on voice and melody as the main means of musical expression. The teacher’s efforts fell on fertile ground, for the result became the hallmark of Bellini’s composing style – long, finely spun lyrical melodies, subtle tonal painting of emotional states, waving vocal lines supported by a comparatively modest orchestral accompaniment, melodic inspiration of highest order. Naturally, such style necessitated that a particular attention be devoted to words, and Bellini soon found a perfect collaborator in Felice Romani (1788-1865), probably the most famous Italian librettist of his time. Romani himself may not have been the greatest of poets, but he had many precious gifts, including an extraordinary attention to the diction of the text and supreme elegance in composing verses. In Bellini’s hands, Romani’s eloquent words acquired an even greater subtlety. The friendship and fruitful partnership between the two men began in 1827 with Il pirata and would continue until Beatrice di Tenda (1833), encompassing seven of Bellini’s ten operas.

     Norma, a tragic opera in two acts (for practical purposes often indicated as four acts) composed on a libretto by Felice Romani, is generally considered not only Bellini’s greatest opera but also one of the masterpieces, if not indeed the masterpiece of the Italian bel canto period. Most of Norma’s music was composed between September and December of 1831 in Blevio on Lake Como, where Bellini was staying as a guest of Giuditta Pasta – a prima donna famous for her interpretive gifts, and one of the most prominent exponents of bel canto singing style. Pasta knew Bellini’s artistic sensibility well, as she had already sung in his Il pirata and also created the role of Amina in La sonnambula earlier that year. Both Pasta and Romani encouraged the young composer to work on a subject based on the tragedy Norma by the French playwright Alexandre Soumet, whose premiere took place in April 1831 in Paris with great success. Bellini’s liked the idea. Inspired by the story of a Druid high priestess who, despite the holy vows, falls in love with an enemy proconsul, he composed music of extraordinary beauty, often reaching a lofty level of dramatic expressiveness by an astonishing economy of means. Bellini composed the score in about fourteen weeks, an unusually short time for him. The intensive work on Norma was not without difficulties, however. Romani had to constantly rewrite portions of the libretto not only to suit the composer’s intentions, but also to provide Pasta, who was again chosen to create a Bellini role, with ample opportunities to display her extraordinary dramatic talent. Indeed, the opera’s plot and music are so heavily centered on the title role, that the success of any Norma performance depends in large measure on the principal interpreter’s ability to display a high degree of dramatic expressiveness. This ideally needs to be combined with an imposing stage presence, remarkable understanding of Bellini’s writing style, complete technical mastery of the highly demanding vocal line, and a dramatic sfogato timbre. Giuditta Pasta was considered, together with Maria Malibran, the ideal interpreter of Bellini’s music. Thirty-three at the time of the Norma premiere, at the pinnacle of her vocal and interpretive powers. and with an artistic personality that seemed tailor-suited to the role of Druid priestess, Pasta nonetheless was rather nervous during the rehearsals. Norma was to be her La Scala debut, and while she held Bellini in highest esteem, Pasta had her doubts about presenting herself in the best possible light to the demanding Milanese audience in a totally new work. She became self-conscious, and at first refused to sing what would soon become the opera’s most famous moment (indeed one of the most beautiful arias in all operatic literature), the cavatina "Casta diva," claiming it unsuitable for her voice. Bellini refused to give in; "Casta diva" was one of his favorite numbers in the score. Constantly bearing Pasta’s voice in mind, he rewrote the aria no less than eight times, ultimately transposing it to the lower key of F major instead of the original G. Desirous to please the admired composer, Pasta diligently studied the music and practiced on her own, day and night.

     The first performance of Norma took place at La Scala, Milan, on December 26, 1831. Ironically for what was soon to be considered a milestone in the Italian opera of the early ottocento, the premiere was not a success. The main cause of a relative failure has been often attributed to the jealous scheming of Giovanni Pacini, Bellini’s rival, who himself had composed an opera with a Druid subject – also on a libretto by Romani – eleven years earlier. As it seems, Bellini shed a few tears after the performance, describing the event to his friends as an "absolute fiasco... a terrible failure." He nevertheless passionately believed in the value of his new creation and seemed unable to understand why the public’s reaction was so unfavorable. However, already the second performance brought a noticeable change: the initially reserved and almost hostile audience started warming to the new opera, gradually becoming aware of its beauties. The subsequent performances were received with increasing enthusiasm. In this, as in so many other cases (the most notable precedent probably being Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia), the initial reaction of the public had little or nothing to do with the work’s artistic merits. True, there were certain innovative features, such as the omission of a long and elaborated Act I finale including all principals and the chorus, which was in this case replaced by a relatively simple, though extremely effective trio. If the circumstances, which most probably did involve jealous off stage machinations, seemed to have sealed the opera’s fate on the opening night, Norma was able to recover in a remarkably short time. Already at the second performance, the composer was warmly asked to take a bow, and the work soon became widely recognized as the supreme masterpiece of the bel canto genre it is.

     Bellini’s writing in Norma may be viewed as apotheosis of pure singing, yet there is genuine music drama in it, as well as an original and individual way of portraying human emotions and characters through vocal means. The orchestra plays a role in this portrayal by providing suitable harmonic background for the vocal line, but the latter is undoubtedly the primary bearer of dramatic expression. Considering the purity and classical beauty of Norma’s vocal part, as well as a certain static solemnity of the utterances and stage action, the opera may well evoke the Greek tragedies. In later 19th century, the relatively modest and linear character of Norma’s orchestration became a subject of controversy, if not complete misunderstanding. At one point, a no lesser master of orchestration than Georges Bizet was conferred the ambitious and unthankful task of re-orchestrating Norma’s score. It was not long before Bizet admitted the impossibility of such task, concluding that the most effective orchestration of Norma’s melodies was exactly the one written by Bellini. Wagner, hardly an unconditional admirer of Italian opera, yet always responsive to the ideas of redemption through love and self-immolation, knew well the score of Norma, for he conducted it in 1837 and even wrote a bass aria for the role of Oroveso in 1839. Wagner’s opinion is well worth citing, for it is as eloquent as it is telling: "We must not be ashamed to shed a tear and express emotion. It is not a crime to believe in this music. People think that I detest the entire Italian school, in particular Bellini. This is not true – a thousand times no! Bellini is my first preference, because there is strength in his vocal writing, and his music lends itself so perfectly to the original text .... Of all Bellini’s operas, Norma is the one which unites the richest flow of melody with the deepest glow of truth .... I admire Norma’s melodic inspiration, which joins the most intimate passion to the most profound reality; a great score that talks straight to the heart, a work of genius."

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     The part of Norma is one of the most complex and demanding – musically, vocally and dramatically – in all opera. A precious few names could claim to have completely mastered all aspects of the role – Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Lilli Lehman, and Rosa Ponselle were certainly among them. In 1950s, only one Norma reigned supreme in the operatic pantheon: Maria Callas. While there have always been sopranos who demonstrated praiseworthy accomplishments at least in some aspects of this complex role, many would agree that to this day no one has matched Maria Callas’ vocal, dramatic and scenic portrayal of the Druid priestess, generally considered ultimate. By Callas’ own admission, Norma was her favorite role (apart from Violetta in La traviata), and it was the one with whom she became particularly associated.

     Maria Callas opened the 1953-54 season at Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi in Trieste on November 19, 1953, singing the fifty-third of her ninety Normas. She first sang in Trieste in La forza del destino in April 1948 at the Politeama Rossetti theater, and gave a concert three years later (in which Tito Schipa participated). The latter occasion was Callas’ debut at Trieste’s Teatro Giuseppe Verdi. The series of four 1953 Normas (November 19, 22, 23, and 29) was her third and last engagement in that city. None of Callas’ Trieste performances are known to have been captured in sound, except for the Norma premiere, which was originally recorded complete and later broadcast by Italian Radio’s second channel, as it can be inferred from speaker’s announcement after the broadcast. The RAI recording of the complete performance seems to have been lost. Fortunately, the broadcast was partially taped by at least two different individuals, and approximately two thirds of the music survives.

     Franco Corelli, with whom Callas had first sung in Norma in Rome in April 1953, made his Trieste debut on November 19, 1953. Interestingly, this is the second earliest example of Corelli’s voice on tape, recorded two years after his operatic debut. Corelli sang with Callas in Norma on twelve occasions between 1953 and 1964, including a complete studio recording in stereo (EMI 1960). Although sonically inferior to the EMI version of seven years later and incomplete, this is Callas’ and Corelli’s only recording of Norma presenting both singers at the absolute peak of vocal refulgence, freshness and fearlessness. Maria Callas sang with the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Elena Nicolai thirty-five times in eleven productions in the span of nine years, but they appear together on only two recordings; this is the only live one. Another Bulgarian singer in the cast was Boris Christoff, who relatively rarely sang in Norma (he was partnered by Callas and Maria Caniglia in 1948, 1951, and 1953); this recording is the only memento of his Oroveso, and the last of only three Callas-Christoff collaborations documented in sound.

     Coming after a two-month period of rest, the 1953 Trieste premiere of Norma finds Callas in remarkably fresh, rich, powerful, and securely produced voice, particularly in the high register. Following the opening recitative, she gives one of her most spontaneously and easily sung renditions of "Casta diva" on records (which comprise no fewer than eighteen and a half different versions, in addition to the two master classes she gave on the interpretation of this aria). In Trieste, Callas’ singing of the cavatina exudes calm, repose, and serenity; the fortissimo ascent to the high B-flat is indeed impressive in both verses. The cabaletta – capped by a blazing high C – sounds as if sung in one long breath. It is an exciting display of steadiness of vocal production, dazzling brilliance, and virtuosity, if not quite intimacy of expression. The same can be said for her impeccable rendition of the concluding part of the first duet with Adalgisa, including a perfectly produced high C in "Ah sì, fa core, abbracciami." In the next scene, Callas sings the polonaise "No, non tremare" with fierce abandon and knife-like attacks. She surmounts the hurdles of the passage not only with her stunning technique, but also an almost frightening vocal power and dramatic intensity. In the subsequent trio, strikingly sung by all three participants, the meditative and regretful quality of "Fonte d’eterne lagrime egli a te pur dischiuse" is to be noted amid Norma’s bitter utterances. Callas’ singing of the finale is no less thrilling (scornful vocal emphases are found for the words "maledetto" and "indegno"), and she crowns the act’s ending with a magnificent and prolonged fortissimo D in alt not found in Bellini’s score.

     The sheer visceral excitement generated in Act I, however, is not quite successfully balanced with inward reflection and expressions of deep personal anguish in Act II. These would become a hallmark of Callas’ Norma in the subsequent years. However, this intimate, interiorized approach is present in a relatively sketchy form in the Trieste performance. To cite an example, Callas’ uses a more generous and less subtly shaded tone for the poignant cantilena "Teneri figli" than it would be the case later. Nonetheless, alongside the vivid moments of contempt ("Schiavi d’una matrigna!") or fearsome resolution ("Muoiano, sì"; "Ecco il delitto"), several heartrending dramatic solutions can be heard as well. For instance, a sudden and abrupt weakening of the voice on the last syllable of "I figli uccido!" – a vocal equivalent of Norma’s helpless dropping of the knife with which she intended to kill her children – or "Ah! No! Son miei figli! Miei figli!", where Callas’ voice literally chokes with horror. The recitative with Adalgisa is sung in a rather grand manner, reinforced by Elena Nicolai’s heroic emphases. A softening of tone, already noticeable in "Deh! Con te, con te li prendi," is brought forward to a greater degree in the sublime "Ah! Perchè, perchè." These lines are sung with an elegiac combination of tenderness, regret, and dreamy wistfulness, which always distinguished Callas’ interpretation of that famous passage. Committed, resolute, and energetic singing from both protagonists characterizes the duet’s final section.

     The last scene of the opera is remarkable, and not only for the splendor of Callas’ high Cs. As far as the soprano part is concerned, the Norma-Pollione duet is superior in every respect to the Callas-Corelli studio version of 1960; the latter recording unfortunately caught the soprano in a comparatively poor vocal shape. In "Mi possi’io dimenticar," the same effect used with such poignancy in "I figli uccido!" can be heard again – a telling sign of Norma’s weakness in spite of her brave, menacing words. "Solo? Tutti!" is delivered with the same razor-sharp and resolute attacks as in the polonaise of the Act I finale. Corelli proves to be a most sensitive and responsive partner in this duet, as well as in the act’s finale. In the latter, there is a memorable contrast between Callas’ stentorian, vindictive and accusatory tone of "All’ira vostra nuova vittima io svelo," immediately followed by a hushed aside full of doubt and remorse "(Io rea, l’innocente accusar del fallo mio?)." Most of "Qual cor tradisti" is sung with exterior emphases and less subtlety of inflexion than in Callas’ later performances; yet a most moving solution is found for the conclusion: "soterra ancora sarò con te." Moving, too, is Norma’s plea to Oroveso "Ah! padre... Deh! Non volerli vittime," sung with a magnificent legato and prodigious reserve of breath.

     Of special interest in this recording is Franco Corelli at the beginning of his distinguished career. Corelli had already sung with Callas in four performances of Norma given in April 1953 in Rome; this was his first artistic collaboration with Callas, who on that occasion sang "Casta diva" in the original, higher key of G major (a practice she would repeat only in the four London Normas of June 1953). Corelli sings with feeling and careful shading of words, particularly in the duets, if not always the vocal steadiness of the later days. His shaping of lines in "Meco all’altar di Venere" (published here for the first time) is not as firm or precise as it would become several years later, but this can be attributed at least in part to the first-night nerves. Still, all features of Corelli’s unmistakable voice and style are already evident, and the tenor’s heroic sound, not devoid of charm and elegance, is as exciting as ever. The phrase "Traman congiure i barbari, ma io li preverrò" is more expressive and the following cabaletta vocally smoother than in the EMI recording, with a triumphant interpolated top note at the end.

     Elena Nicolai’s is not an ideally youthful sound, which would indeed be appropriate for the role of Adalgisa; neither does she show total respect of Bellini’s style, or the required precision in more florid passages (compare, for example, her verse "Ripeti, o ciel, ripetimi" with Callas’ rendition of "Ah sì, fa core, abbracciami" in their first duet). In compensation, Nicolai offers superb firmness and resonance of sound, especially in the powerful and precise top notes. And as it might be expected, Boris Christoff’s Oroveso is an imposing, solemn one. The bass’ vocal splendor and authority have been rarely matched in this role. Yet the listener cannot fail to respond to the subtleties he brings to the part, such as the reflective, hushed mood full of inner torment in which Christoff moulds the recitative line "Cruda legge, il sento" before his aria in the penultimate scene.

     This engaging performance has known very few LP or CD editions, probably due to the fact that it has not been preserved complete. The version published in 1991 by Melodram, presented as a complete Trieste Norma, was actually an amalgam of six different live recordings – all but one featuring Maria Callas – and it did not even include all available material from Trieste (for more details, please refer to the article Callas’ Trieste "Norma" on Melodram CDM 26031: Reality and Illusion included in the multimedia part of this set). The Divina Records enhanced CD edition (DVN~3) is unique in that it presents, for the first time on CD, all of the audio material known to have survived from the 1953 Trieste performance – with many portions in best available sound. In addition, this edition offers several rare photographs from the production, scans of the original hand program, as well as scans and translations of two original newspaper reviews of the performance.

© Milan Petkovic, 2003