Norma Online Course by Dr. Paul DorganPart 4: THE MUSICAL STORY OF NORMA – ACT 2
*Note: All video excerpts are drawn from a 1978 performance of Norma for The Australian Opera, featuring Joan Sutherland in the title role.
At the top of Act 2, we remain in Norma’s home. The full orchestra blares a fortissimo D. Silence. Orchestra repeats its D, and another silence. Then from the depths rises a D major arpeggio answered by solo winds. Silence. Repeat in the dominant. Silence. A sighing figure from the 1st violins establishes us in D minor. Cellos introduce a melody which Norma will later sing. The cello melody is interrupted by discord shiverings from the strings indicating Norma’s entrance with a lamp, which she places on a table, and a dagger. What follows is probably the greatest example of all the orchestral-accompanied recitatives in Italian opera! The various elements in Bellini’s introduction (call them “motifs” if you like) will reappear throughout Norma’s monologue, which is aptly broken up between unaccompanied recitative, followed by orchestral commentary; accompanied recitative, where the orchestra propels her declamation; and the wondrous lyrical outburst towards the end of her monologue. Librettist Romani gives her simple words, but it is composer Bellini who invests them with such an emotional and psychological rightness: all the more effective for the simplicity of his writing.
This is an extraordinary scene, certainly unique in bel canto opera and maybe in all opera. Later composers would have obscured her words with orchestral commentary. Bellini leaves the words stark naked, and we are horrified by them. Unaccompanied, Norma notes that both children are asleep. Rising D minor arpeggio from the low strings, answered by the violins. Again unaccompanied, that is a relief (though it’s a painful one, thanks to that C# to Bb on the words la mano – “the hand”) since they won’t see who kills them. Sighing figure, now from the 1st clarinet. They cannot live because here they will be ostracized, but if Pollione takes them to Rome, they will be the slaves of a stepmother. Never! Shivers from the strings: they must die. Solo clarinet sings a sighing figure, echoed by the strings: I can’t be near them. Kill my children??!! The D minor cello melody from the introduction is now given words and an accompaniment from the strings: Dear children, until now my delight, and in whose smiles I believed I saw Heaven’s forgiveness. How could I kill them? Silence. How are they guilty? The strings cannot answer. Risoluta: They’re Pollione’s children, and that’s crime enough: they are already dead for me. So kill them! A creepy tremulous figure from the cellos. But, in Eb minor, and accompanied by the orchestra in a tempo marked Allegro agitato, she cannot kill her children.
In Adalgisa’s Bb major, she asks Clotilde to find her: apparently she is near-by, praying and crying. Alone, Norma prays her sin will be forgiven before she dies.
Norma and Adalgisa
Very slowly, and timidly, Adalgisa, in her Bb tonality, approaches Norma. Soft, but very distressed strings in a different key register her distress at seeing Norma’s sad and pale face. The paleness of death, shuddering strings in F minor. Norma takes the Ab of that key and brings us to Db major, promising to tell Adalgisa everything. That Db becomes the C# of a very determined A major chord from the strings. “I ask of you one thing, if you can pity me.” Adalgisa swears. Over tremolo strings in D major, Norma says she has decided she must die. But she entrusts her children to Adalgisa:”Ttake them to the Roman, whom I cannot name, and may he be a less cruel husband to you than he was to me. I forgive him, and I must die.” Adalgisa protests that she could never marry Pollione. But Norma begs her to protect his children.
An unnecessary fanfare from the full orchestra ushers in a new section of their duet, played by solo winds. Norma is concerned that her children not become slaves in Rome, and reminds Adalgisa that she lost Pollione to her. Agitated violin triplets accompany Adalgisa’s protestation that Norma will always be loved, for she has become a mother to her. She will go to him and tell him of Norma’s distress; her own pity for Norma will speak volumes and he will return to his first love. Norma refuses to beg him for anything, while Adalgisa refuses to leave.
Andante in F major, accompanied by rocking violins. See your children at your feet, Adalgisa sings; be moved by your pity for them even if you have none for yourself. Why try to weaken my resolve, replies Norma: such hopes are not for someone about to die. Their voices unite a third apart in one of the most beautiful and moving duets in opera. Allegro. Relent, Norma; but he loves you; he has already relented – I did love him, but now only as a friend. I will give back to you what is yours and then hide myself away from heaven and man. In the final, faster section the women swear to stay with each other for the rest of their lives.
Oroveso and Warriors
The scene changes to the Druids’ woods. The full orchestra begins fortissimo, answered by the four horns, piano. A sighing figure from the strings, another fortissimo chord, followed by a pause. Softly the orchestra begins what will become the accompaniment to the Warriors’ chorus. The Romans have not yet left and the men resolve to wait quietly until they can fulfill their mighty task. Oroveso enters and tells them that he can no longer urge them to revolt: the god’s will is different. He warns them that a more cruel Roman will replace Pollione. What does Norma think? Oroveso cannot read her thoughts. He has no option but to tell the men to disband, but always pretend submission to Rome; the day will come when their hatred will blaze forth with a fiercer flame.
Another scene change, this one to the Temple of Irminsul. A calm C major introduction from strings and woodwinds, Andante maestoso. Norma is sure that Adalgisa will convince Pollione to return to her; the dark cloud hanging over her will be dispersed and the sun will shine as it did on the first day of their love: note the lovely melisma on the word “love.” In F major Clotilde enters to tell Norma that Adalgisa’s mission was in vain. Over tremolo strings Norma is convinced that her friend has betrayed her. Clotilde says that Adalgisa is on her way to the temple to take her vows; Pollione has sworn to take her with him even if he has to drag her from the altar. “The traitor has gone too far; my vengeance will strike first and Roman blood will flow like water!” Her rage is heard in the scale she sings which starts on a high C and flows like water down to a low F. Presto string triplets take Norma to the altar, where she strikes the sacred bronze three times. Trumpet fanfares sound off-stage; Oroveso with the chorus hear the signal.
Norma calls to all Druids for war against the Romans
To an increasingly menacing introduction from the full orchestra, Oroveso with the Druids, Bards, Priests and Priestesses rush into the temple: What has happened – what does it mean? String tremolo. “War!” Sustained brass chord. “Slaughter!” Sustained brass chord. “Extermination!” “But a while ago you counselled peace.” Now Norma calls for rage and Roman deaths, and asks them to sing their hymn of war. Introduced by the banda, Allegro feroce, this is a savage song of blood and battle in which the full orchestra joins.
Oroveso asks if now Norma will complete the rite and name the sacrificial victim; the victim is ready, is the reply: this altar has never lacked for victims. But strings and winds, Allegro, indicate a disturbance. Clotilde runs in with the news that the temple has been desecrated by a Roman who has been captured in the cloister of the Priestesses. Strings and bassoons may be Allegro assai moderato (almost a contradiction: assai means “very”; so does it mean “very fast, but moderated” or “fast, but very moderated”?), but they’re also marked “whispered and soft,” while the 1st violins sound nervous, perhaps reflecting Norma’s “What if it were he?” It is, and Norma feels avenged.
In what we must now call “Druidic G major” Oroveso (“very commandingly” is the direction) asks the “sacrilegious enemy” why he has profaned the temple of Irminsul. Proudly, but a bit enigmatically, Pollione replies “Kill me, but do not question me.” Coming forward, Norma says it is she who must kill him, but her D major resolution is denied by Pollione’s F# major astonishment at seeing her. Everyone encourages her to avenge their god, and she takes the dagger from Oroveso. Bb tremolo from cellos and basses which slowly, over the next ten bars, rises half-step by half-step, increasing the tension as it goes, until it reaches Eb. Norma is about to kill Pollione, but hesitates: she cannot do it, she says in an aside. Oroveso and the chorus are baffled. To herself, Norma wonders if she might be feeling pity. “Kill him!” shouts the chorus. Pause. She tells them she must question Pollione to find out who among the priestesses was his accomplice, and that they must leave. They do, greatly puzzled. The orchestra takes us to F major.
Norma and Pollione
Second violins, Allegro moderato, begin a gentle rocking accompaniment which is such a feature of this score; a solo clarinet and 1st violins introduce the melody of this aria-duet. She tells him that only she can save him, but on condition that he swear to abandon Adalgisa forever. Pollione says he’d rather die than agree to such a condition. “Know that my anger is greater than yours”; he is waiting for her to kill him. She confesses she has held the dagger over the children but could not bring herself to kill them; but that day might come when she could forget that she is a mother. In a slightly faster tempo, Pollione says he’s the only one who should die. In her tremendous rage (hear all those 16th notes!), and in a very majestic-sounding Db major, Norma promises that all the Romans (not just him) will be destroyed, and (now briefly in a very rare Eb minor) that Adalgisa will be burned alive as punishment for breaking her vows; in the vocal line’s trills we can almost hear the flickering flames. “Kill me, but spare Adalgisa!”
“Are you finally pleading? But it’s too late! Through her I’ll wound your heart.” Now a little faster and in Ab major, Norma gloats at the fear she sees in his eyes: “At last I can make you as unhappy as I am.” Pollione begs her to be appeased by his fear and his tears and to spare the innocent Adalgisa; be avenged by my suicide here and now.
Return of all the Druid warriors and priestesses
This extraordinary aria-duet ending in Ab, Pollione demands the dagger from Norma who calls back her priests and ministers; they return to the menacing music which introduced them earlier in the scene, only this time in Ab major. That Ab switches to its alter-ego G# and the recitative begins in E major. Norma announces a new victim: a priestess who has betrayed her vows; her nation; and the gods of their ancestors. Allegro and fortissimo all demand, in A minor, to know who it is. She orders the pyre to be prepared; Pollione again begs for pity. Tension-filled diminished-seventh chords from the strings as Norma questions her decision to accuse an innocent girl of her own crime. The chorus demands to know who it is; Pollione begs her not to tell. That dominant-seventh discord resolves to a regular G7 chord as Norma says “It is I.”
That G7 chord should resolve to C major, but here, Sostenuto, it goes to its relative A minor, though it seems unsure of itself: A minor; C major; F major. The orchestra seems discombobulated: strings can’t seem to figure out where they are harmonically, while the clarinets and bassoons seem to have lost their bearings when it comes to the downbeat of the bars. Nobody can believe Norma’s admission, and Pollione tells them not to believe her. “Norma does not lie.” Her Eb statement is greeted in silence, before the chorus express their horror on the note D, which is emphasized, Lento, by a flute and clarinet. And that D takes us to the “Druidic” key of G major.
Largo is the vocal score’s indication; the orchestral score asks for Andante sostenuto, and we are back in the G major of the Druids. To the gentle rocking accompaniment of the violins is added a measured rumble from the timpani which we, familiar with such figures in Verdi’s operas, will recognize as a harbinger of death. Bellini asks for the second and third beats to be leaned on. Norma gently berates Pollione for betraying her: those rests, which break up words at the start of her aria, indicate the depth of her anguish; by the second phrase she has managed to control those breaks in the line, though that makes her seem more anguished. But some god, more powerful than you, wants us united in life and death. On the funeral pyre I’ll be united with you. Pollione now realizes, perhaps too late, the greatness of Norma’s soul. His love for her is re-kindled. “Let us die together!” But, he adds, don’t hate me before you die: forgive me!
Oroveso and the chorus beg for reassurance, and add that the silence of the god is proof he will not punish Norma. G major turns to C major, Allegro moderato, as the Druids ask Norma to defend herself. She doesn’t hear them because the 1st violins bring back the “Children” theme: “My children; our children?” The chorus demands to know if she is guilty. “Yes”, in E major; then a G7 chord: “beyond all human thought,” resolving to C major, and a slower tempo. A short descending phrase is passed among the 1st violins and woodwinds as Norma approaches her father who sorrowfully warns her away. She tells him she is a mother (Oroveso is shocked); Clotilde has the care of her children, but Norma wants her father to take the three and protect them from the Romans. Kneeling at his feet she has one last prayer.
E minor – the relative minor of the Druids’ G major. One bar of violin triplets, punctuated by a note (“like a lament”) from the solo horn. Quietly to her father she begs that her children not be the victims of her mistake; they are his blood as well. The chorus, in E major, observe her crying, but know her prayers will be unanswered: she must die. Oroveso remains troubled, but yields to love. At the magnificent climax to this ensemble, Pollione joins Norma vocally and dramatically: singing her notes he resolves to die with her.
Back in E minor, Allegro agitato assai, the chorus order her to the pyre so that their altar and temple may be cleansed from the cursed one, while the Druids cover her with the black veil of execution. Pollione looks forward to a more holy eternal life together; Norma bids farewell to her father, who is left weeping. The curtain falls.