Story of the Opera
In a sacred grove, the Druid patriarch Oroveso leads his subjects in solemn procession to pray for victory over the invading Romans. It will be up to his daughter, the priestess Norma, to negotiate a favorable peace with them. They go to the sacred temple; the Roman proconsul Pollione and his friend Flavio enter, and though Norma has secretly borne two sons by Pollione, he reveals to Flavio that he has now fallen in love with her younger acolyte and best friend Adalgisa. Guiltily, he recounts a dream that seemed to portend misfortune for himself and a vengeful Norma. She enters the temple grounds and addresses the assembled subjects, counseling patience in dealing with the Romans, and asserting that they will eventually relinquish their control over the Druids. She prays to the moon, then rejoices in her love for Pollione. Later, Adalgisa returns to the temple to pray, lamenting her love for Pollione until Pollione joins her and urges her to flee to Rome with him; Adalgisa finally agrees.
Later, in her dwelling, Norma suffers feelings of confusion and conflict over her sons. She orders her maid Clotilde to remove them, and as they leave, Adalgisa enters and confides to Norma that she has fallen in love with a Roman, whom she does not name. The more she reveals of her experience, the more it echoes Norma’s own. Norma takes comfort in their common bond and they embrace, but this harmony ends abruptly when Pollione enters and it becomes clear that he is now Adalgisa’s lover. Norma rages at Pollione’s duplicity and calls Adalgisa innocent; the three exchange imprecations, with Adalgisa refusing to leave Norma and Norma demanding that Pollione return to Rome, leaving his sons behind. Their anger is echoed by the Druids gathering at the temple, who report that the god Irminsul has expressed his anger. Pollione storms out as the threat of war looms.
Norma contemplates her sleeping sons and resolves to kill them. But as she approaches them with dagger in hand, she wavers and then changes her mind. She tells Clotilde to bring Adalgisa to her, and as the younger priestess enters, Norma extracts a promise from her to obey Norma’s solemn wish. To Adalgisa’s horror, Norma then commands her to take her sons to Pollione’s encampment and join him there as a family. At length, after intense pleading and confessional exchanges, Adalgisa is able to change Norma’s mind, and Norma comes to realize that Adalgisa intends to renounce Pollione out of loyalty to their friendship and their people. Meanwhile, in the sacred grove, preparations are underway for an attack against the Romans, but Oroveso informs the frustrated Druid warriors that the time is not yet right.
At the temple of Irminsul, the Druids are gathered in expectation as Norma enters. She believes that Pollione will return to her at Adalgisa’s urging. Adalgisa enters to take her vows as priestess, but Clotilde discloses to Norma that Pollione plans to abduct Adalgisa to Rome with him. Enraged, Norma strikes a sacred gong, summoning her people to war as she cries out for revenge.
To authorize the order for war, a human sacrifice is required, and as Oroveso seeks to know who it will be, Clotilde rushes in to announce that a Roman has been captured while desecrating the temple. The offender—Pollione—is brought before the crowd, and Norma approaches him with the sacrificial knife, but to the crowd’s surprise, she hesitates. She finds herself unable to kill the man whom she has loved and who has fathered her children; she announces that she must question the captive privately.
Alone with Pollione, Norma engages in a heated exchange with him, demanding that he renounce Adalgisa forever and threatening to kill her children and Adalgisa—who has broken her vows as a priestess in loving him—if he refuses. “At last I can make you as miserable as I,” she tells him, but he is implacable. When the crowd reassembles, she tells them that the sacrifice of a priestess who has broken her vows is the most appropriate propitiation for war. Then she stuns all those listening with her announcement that “It is I.” Commending her children to Oroveso, she prepares to leap into the temple’s sacred pyre. Her decision and her dignity move Pollione to rediscover his love for her, and he decides to join her in death.