Above the Norma

Dimitra Theodossiou brings her virtuoso soprano to one of the most difficult roles in opera, Bellini’s ‘Norma.’

Norma Opera 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Norma Opera 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When it comes to meriting the label of child prodigy, Vincenzo Bellini (1801- 1835) outdid even Mozart. He started learning music theory at two years old and was a capable piano player by age five. Legend has it that he could already sing arias from famous operas when he was 18 months old.
Together with Verdi and Donizetti, Bellini is one of the greatest representatives of 19th-century Italian opera. His main output in a very short life is comprised almost exclusively of operas. Apart from the 11 operas he wrote, there are several songs.
Among the stage works, Norma belongs to a group of masterpieces written in the last years of his life (the others being La Sonnambula and I Puritani).
The opera tells the story of Norma, a Celtic priestess in Gaul occupied by the Romans. It centers on her loyalty to both love and country and the inevitable tragedy that ensues from the conflict between the two.
The current production is directed by Federico Tiezzi, who works mostly in the theater. Tiezzi’s theatrical roots give him a unique insight into Bellini’s piece. While he acknowledges that the story is probably based on Medea by Euripides, Tiezzi says Bellini’s heroine is very much a woman of the 19th century and says that the moral dilemmas that plague her actually predate the theatrical leading ladies of Ibsen and Strindberg.
He cites the frequent references to natural elements in Norma, such as the moon and the forest, as a typical Romantic preoccupation and thus a deviation from Norma’s “Classical” subject matter.
The biggest conflict in Norma, says Tiezzi, is the conflict between nature and history, between Norma and Pollione which, according to Tiezzi, juxtapose the modern woman and the man from antiquity.
Bellini wrote the tragedy with Norma’s part tailored to the capabilities of Giuditta Pasta, a celebrated virtuoso soprano of the time. The role has come to be known as one of the most difficult soprano roles in the history of opera. The most famous Norma of all is perhaps Maria Callas, who sang the priestess’s lines no less than 89 times.

In the Israeli Opera’s production, the demanding role is shared by Dimitra Theodossiou, who won over Israeli audiences when she sang in the Masada production of Nabucco last year, and Maria Agresta, who makes her Israeli debut in this production.
During the premiere earlier this week, Theodossiou wowed the audience again with her phenomenal vocal ability and got a standing ovation.
While all the singers in the current cast are excellent, Theodossiou’s ability to project the difficult coloratura lines over a full orchestral accompaniment is something of a rarity among this generation’s opera singers. The crowd was justifiably ecstatic over her performance.
The opera is conducted by Daniel Oren, artistic director of the Verdi Opera House in Salerno, Italy, who also received a very warm welcome from his home crowd in the premiere evening. Oren, whose stellar career started as a boy singer under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, conducted Nabucco at Masada and La Juive at the Israeli Opera last year.
He is also slated to conduct Aida at Masada this season.
Norma plays at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv until April 23.