What Would Make Norma “Relevant”?

Norma was first performed in 1831. It is a High Romantic tragedy and, along with Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), is justly regarded as the pre-Verdian summa of that form in opera. Felice Romani’s libretto, however, is taken from a play by Alexandre Soumet, a neo-Voltairean representative of French academic classicism—very much on the trailing edge of the French theatre of the day. Thus, despite Bellini’s lyrical romanticization of the material, Norma owes as much to that older tradition as it does to the bounds-bursting passions of Hugo’s Hernani (1830), which Bellini and Romani made an abortive stab at setting before Verdi got hold of it for one of the most delicious of his early operas. It’s not, perhaps, as much Stendahl’s question of Racine v. Shakespeare as of Racine v. Hugo or even Schiller—but in any case, Racine hangs in there.

The drama is set in Gaul at exactly the time of Julius Caesar’s conquest of that region (c. 50 BCE). This means that the “matters in hand” (i.e., “of relevance” or “pertinence”) to its creators included the melding of historical with mythical motifs that fascinated the educated classes of the day. Rome’s new rule over the tribes of Gaul, with their pagan religious beliefs, (I)The opera seems to present a mixture of Saxon and Celtic practices. Historically, the Irminsul,  the sacred tree or pillar—with, in the opera’s representation, a great altar-stone and temple to the moon goddess—was located in what is now North Rhine/Westphalia, and was central to old Saxon worship and tribal identity. Druids, though, acted as the judges, philosophers, and priests of tribal societies throughout the Celtic lands, and where the Celtic and Saxon overlap is a bit mysterious, at least to me. At any rate, Norma was written at a time of an awakened interest in Druidism, part of the era’s general Western European search for ethnic and national “roots,” and the Irminsul (or an Irminsul—there may have been several) is the setting of the opera’s opening scene.  as recounted (however accurately or inaccurately) by the conqueror himself, is intertwined with the myth of Medea and her awful revenge on Jason, who fathered her children and then left her for a younger woman. Tommasini, on the lookout for themes of political and social relevance, says that the historical part (“the brutal, boorish [?] clashes of culture and religion”) drive the story. That’s not true. They do constitute the background for the action, condition it and bear in on it, and show us the world in which it takes place. But what drives the story is the mythical part—the fury of a woman of high station who had risked all, was prepared to sacrifice all, for the lover who abandoned her and their children. And one of the things about myths is that while civilizations come and go, myths continue to act themselves out, in reality or imagination, in peoples’ lives. They are neither progressive nor reactionary.  We don’t have to do anything to make them relevant. They remain so.

In Norma, the forsaken mother does not quite carry out Medea’s murderous vengeance on her children and their father’s new love. She threatens the former, before our eyes, at the beginning of Act 11, and the latter hangs in the balance until the very end, but she does not finally do those things. Instead, before the assembled community, Norma names herself, not Adalgisa, as the betrayer of her vows of chastity and tribal loyalty (the two, I should say, inseparable). Pollione, overcome by this noble act of love and ultimate sacrifice, voluntarily joins her on the path to the pyre. Oroveso, the adamantine Archdruid and Norma’s father, transcends his resistance and promises to care for the children of the fallen priestess and the hated oppressor. Norma is still a tragedy, but now, unlike Medea in its many manifestations, a redemptive one. Adalgisa alone remains officially unredeemed, but that has really already happened for her in her bonding with Norma and her release from her vows.

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. The opera seems to present a mixture of Saxon and Celtic practices. Historically, the Irminsul,  the sacred tree or pillar—with, in the opera’s representation, a great altar-stone and temple to the moon goddess—was located in what is now North Rhine/Westphalia, and was central to old Saxon worship and tribal identity. Druids, though, acted as the judges, philosophers, and priests of tribal societies throughout the Celtic lands, and where the Celtic and Saxon overlap is a bit mysterious, at least to me. At any rate, Norma was written at a time of an awakened interest in Druidism, part of the era’s general Western European search for ethnic and national “roots,” and the Irminsul (or an Irminsul—there may have been several) is the setting of the opera’s opening scene.