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Love Among the Druids: Bellini's 'Norma'

Over the centuries, opera composers and librettists have created scores of spectacular roles for sopranos.

It's true that many of the most familiar and beloved soprano roles involve operatic characters regarded, perhaps justly, as stereotypical — fictional women who all too often occupy the standard ground of lovesick innocents, pining away for men who have more on their minds than just romance. Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madame Butterfly comes to mind.

Then there are the vivacious soprano characters who take advantage of their beauty to seduce their way to positions of fame and fortune, only to be denounced as harlots, and worse, by the same men who put them there. Think about Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata and the title character in Massenet's Manon.

But however these roles are analyzed, and perhaps criticized, the characters and the sopranos who portray them have become wildly popular — and playing the roles demands an extraordinary range of technical mastery, dramatic expression and musical artistry.

And of all the great soprano roles in operatic history, there's one that may cover more dramatic territory, and demand more of those who perform it, than any other.

The title character in Bellini's Norma is a role with emotions ranging from haughty and demanding, to desperately passionate, to vengeful and defiant. And the singer must convey all of this while confronting some of the most vocally challenging music ever composed.

And if that weren't intimidating enough for any singer, Norma and its composer have become almost synonymous with the specific and notoriously torturous style of opera known as bel canto — literally, "beautiful singing."

In the early decades of the 19th century, bel canto composers, who also included Rossini and Donizetti, concentrated on sheer beauty of tone and vocal agility. Their long, flowing lines, built from luscious melodies, have been compared to Chopin's Nocturnes for piano. The music is often extremely difficult to perform; singers have to maintain the line and support the tone, over phrases stretched out to seemingly endless lengths.

Though Bellini died when he was 33, having written only 10 operas, his music may be as close as anyone came to pure bel canto, and Norma has become emblematic of everything the style came to embody.

For more than 175 years now, the title role has both challenged and inspired many of the world's finest singers, and soprano Edita Gruberova has been one of the finest Normas of her generation. On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production featuring Gruberova, along with a distinguished supporting cast, at the historic Vienna State Opera.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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