If there ever was an opera that could be called, without hesitation, "a singer's opera," it is Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, this weekend's Rossini Festival offering from Knoxville Opera. The title character of Norma runs the gamut of human emotions, from disdainful to loving, from vindictive to passionate, from truculent to devoted, all the while immersed in some of the most beautiful and challenging music ever written for the opera stage and for coloratura sopranos.
Knoxville Opera's last brush with Bellini's bel canto style—literally, "beautiful singing"—was the 2011 production of I Puritani, Bellini's last opera, from 1835. Norma, from 1831, is a superior work by almost every measure—libretti, vocal moments, and historical legacy.
Bellini's librettist, Felice Romani, drew the story from Norma, ossia L'infanticidio by the French poet Alexandre Soumet. The tale is set in the Gaul of Roman times, roughly 50 B.C. The Druid high priestess Norma is leading a rebellion against the Romans, but has fallen in love with the Roman proconsul, Pollione, and secretly borne him two children. Unfortunately, Pollione has fallen out of love with Norma and turned his affections toward another Druid priestess, Adalgisa. Ultimately, Pollione is captured and sentenced to death by the Gauls. Norma declares that a priestess who has broken her vows should be the one to be sacrificed; she and Pollione, reunited, leap into the sacrificial fire together.
Giuseppe Verdi later praised Bellini's style of vocal writing, as exemplified by Norma, as "long, long, long melodies such as no one had done before him." These melodies demanded much from the singers—vocal agility and beautiful tone that must be supported over lengthy phrases, segmented only by poetic ornamentation. In return, sopranos who succeed dramatically and musically in the role—Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, and Joan Sutherland—have a career vehicle at their disposal.
Unlike operas with huge casts, complicated sets, and intricate crowd scenes, Norma is relatively modest, with only six principal and secondary roles. For the production's stage director, Elizabeth Bachman, this places the emphasis in a place she relishes.
"As a director, I work very closely with the music," Bachman says. "The music gives you all this information, so my job is to set things up on stage so that the singers' thoughts inspire the action … and the singers' thoughts make the music happen."
Bachman says that demands on singers have changed substantially in the last 30 years.
"In the old days, people who sang operas like Norma tended to be older … and could get away with being a little thicker, a little stiffer. You can't do that any more. It's so exciting to have a young, agile, beautiful cast like this one. They're all beautiful, they all sing beautifully, and this is very hard music."
KO music director Brian Salesky has cast his six roles with singers mostly new to the company. In the title role of Norma is soprano Rochelle Bard. Taking the other sides of the odd love triangle are tenor Ta'u Pupu'a as Pollione and mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges as the priestess Adalgisa. Filling out the cast are bass Kevin Thompson as Oroveso, the chief of the Druids, soprano Linda Barnett as Clotilde, and tenor Sergio Cepeda as Flavio.
Salesky will conduct the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.