By Alan Schuster
In 1985, the Italian government issued 24 lira bank notes (which became obsolete in 2002 when Italy joined the Eurozone), 18 of which portrayed the images of some of the great and honored names in its rich history. Among them were Galileo, daVinci, Michelangelo, Marco Polo, Columbus, and two opera composers, Giuseppe Verdi – and Vincenzo Bellini!
But why Bellini – who wrote only 10 operas – while two of his contemporaries, Rossini and Donizetti, combined to write 105? Why? Most likely, Norma.
Long after Bellini’s tragic death at the age of 33, both Verdi and Richard Wagner found words to express their esteem for the composer. Verdi praised “the broad curves of Bellini’s melodies as being extremely long, and as no one had ever made before.” Wagner, no friend of Italian opera, was even more fervent, writing about “Norma’s rich melodic vein expressing the most intimate passions with a sense of profound reality. A great score that speaks to the heart, and a work of genius.”
The HD of the New York Metropolitan Opera, Bellini’s “Norma,” will be held at 12:55 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7 at the USCB Center for the Performing Arts.
In the sacred forest of the Druids, Oroveso and the Druids express their hatred of their Roman conquerors. Pollione, the Roman proconsul, has left Norma, the Druid high priestess who has borne him two sons, and is now in love with Adalgisa, another priestess. He dreams that Norma will seek her revenge.
After the Gauls perform their sacred rites, Norma claims that the Gauls must not yet go to war because Rome will eventually destroy itself. She prays to the goddess of the moon for peace.
Adalgisa meets Pollione and he enjoins her to run away with him to Rome. She later confesses to Norma that she has a lover, breaking her vow of chastity as a priestess. Norma forgives her until she discovers that Adalgisa’s lover is Pollione, and then pronounces a curse upon both of them.
Norma, intending to kill her two children, cannot bring herself to do so and asks Adalgisa to care for them. Adalgisa asks Pollione to return to Norma, but is unable to change his mind and Norma, enraged, gathers her people and declares that Rome be exterminated.
When people cry out for a victim to be sacrificed, Pollione is captured, but Norma stops the rite as the sacrifice is about to begin. She decides to sacrifice herself instead as she, too, has broken her vow of chastity. She climbs onto the sacred pyre, and moved by her courage, Pollione mounts the pyre with her.
More than any other composer, it was Bellini whose operas gave meaning to Italy’s bel canto era (“beautiful singing”) during most of Europe’s 19th century Romantic Period.
And undoubtedly one of the most famous arias in all of opera takes places in the opening act with Norma’s prayer to the moon, “Casta Diva”(Virtuous goddess). It’s a long, gentle melody first heard on a flute.
What follows is a continuous flow of sweet melodies, raging emotions and high theatrics with very few lapses or applause traps.
A few lengthy recitatifs take place, mostly as preambles to a series of stunning duets and trios involving the three principals.
As the plot intensifies, the drama builds to an irresistable final scene of high drama, lasting more than half-an-hour. There’s a marvelous, intense duet between Norma and Pollione, “In mia man’ alfin’ tu sei” (To my hands … only I can break your bonds …); Norma’s last great aria, “Qual cor tradisti” (The heart you betrayed); and the grand climax of the entire opera as they ascend to the funeral pyre.
Coloratura soprano Sonya Radvanovsky sings the title role for the first time since her inaugural American performance as Norma at the Met in 2013. The New York Times commented that when she sang “Casta Diva” at the Met, “she drew listeners in with her expressive shadings and heartfelt delivery, earning a thunderous ovation. Overall, her dynamic control was striking, with alluring pianissimos that contrasted with the passion of her singing at its most vigorous.”
Joining Radvanovsky will be another distinguished Met diva, mezzo-soprano Joyce di Donato as Adalgisa. Tenor Joseph Calleja is Pollione, and Carlo Rizzi conducts.
Tickets for all opera presentations are now available. All seats are general admission. Tickets are $20 for adults; $18 for OLLI members; and $10 for students.
Order online at www.centerforthearts.com, or by calling 843-521-4145. The box office opens at noon.
The USCB Center for the Performing Arts is located at 801 Carteret St., Beaufort.
The next HD broadcast will be on Saturday, Oct. 14: Mozart’s most popular opera, “The Magic Flute.”