The famous scene and cavatina from Norma opens up for the listener a new invention in drammatical vocality that is pure Bellini. Everything is scored with great care right down to the last accent, and during the scene the priestess demonstrates the same “encyclopedism” of the senses that Bellini required from his own diva, Giuditta Pasta. The dramatic opening recitative, the sacral poetry of La Casta Diva., not bereft of occasional glimpses of the priestess lover’s passionate ambiguity in the rising up of the high passages, reveals in the woman a libidic timbre which never subsides, yet is extraneous to the charm.
Finally, the agile dramatic vocality of the plot, based, with modifications, on Bianca e Fernando, transforms the Rossini-like portions of the first version to veer towards a change in emphasis in the theatrical set-up of the “a parte”. The coloratura at this point expresses, in the descending chromatic run, something that is possibly tenderness, in a lover who is, moreover, imperious, and subsequently exalts in quadruplets of high semiquavers to express a joyous memory of love. A reprise in the style of Rossini which fits in with the nature of the character: Like Isabella, Elisabetta or Rosina herself, Norma is doesn’t show the romantic characteristic of the victim, it is an antithetical nature, in a larmoyant style. Her thoughts dominate events and are imposed on those close to her. We witness, so far, in most nineteenth century theatrical history, that much care is taken in the re-working of aspects that came before, but with the Casta diva it appears we have an inventive original example of rhetoric vocality. This is the idea of the progression, of the diastematic scales, as Lippman describes it, a progression in stages of melodic development towards the top, a characteristic rhetoric form of the cavatina and finale of the opera, destined for great things to come. To find correct expression in the language of passion is obviously an aspect which the composer of dramatic works wishes to achieve. But examples of premeditated inquiry like this of Bellini were hitherto unknown in operatic history. The problem was to present passionate cathartic revelations within the construction of the melodic palette; the birth, the springing-up, the becoming, the affirmation, and, at last, the resolving of tensions, see to it that the music represents the original gesture of the libido, the feature which after all was the cause of new life in this world. The term “philosophic”, which is how critics describe the music of Bellini, intends in this way only to emphasis that it couldn’t be described by solely the word hedonism, it went much deeper than that.
Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi
(from Vincenzo Bellini, Sellerio, Palermo 2001, pp. 112-114)