One popular view of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma is that the title role is so outrageously difficult to sing that the opera has only survived, in the years since its première in 1831, as a vehicle for a few particularly endowed prime donne: Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Giulia Grisi (all three of whom Bellini heard before he died at thirty-three), Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle, and Maria Callas.
God knows it isn’t an easy part to sing, with its demanding mixture of vocal and emotional textures, its C’s above (some go for D’s) and B-flats below the staff, its long-breathed lines and octave drops and showpiece trills. One must be able to sing a strong, natural-sounding contralto and some of the highest coloratura ever written. The role of Norma calls for an authentic bel canto soprano voice, one that can be both mercurial-birdlike and witchy-dramatic.
Moreover, the dramatic challenge of this deep and complex part is at least as great as the musical. There is written into the role of Norma, Druid priestess and woman scorned, as much potential for dramatic excitement as into the roles of any of the great tragedy queens of Racine. It may well be that only the six sopranos I have just named have met both challenges at once, and have achieved something near to the full potential of this role.
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