By Thomas May
“Casta diva” is the most famous scene in all of Bellini—and a paradigm of his subtle, sustained, dramatically enthralling way with bel canto. No matter how ravishingly beautiful this music sounds in isolation it acquires an incalculable richness when heard as it was intended, within the context of the long expository sequence for which Norma’s entrance provides the climax. Bellini and Romani masterfully build up expectations for this entrance scene and cavatina, which in turn unfolds in several parts. (An instrumental equivalent this strategy always makes me think of is the long-delayed arrival of the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.)
The opera’s backdrop of dramatic oppositions takes shape here as the priestess ecstatically invokes the “chaste,” peaceful moon goddess in contrast to the vengeful Irminsul, god of war. For her prayer Bellini gives the soprano long, seemingly endless garlands of mesmerizing melody which in turn weave in and out of the Druids’ choral chanting. At the same time, this is hardly pretty “note spinning” for its own sake. Bellini is showing us Norma’s power and authority as the figure who engenders collective religious ecstasy—even as he foregrounds the priestess in her commanding individuality, her difference: the very dilemma at the heart of the drama.
Musicologist David Kimbell aptly calls her cantabile a “liturgical aria” notable for its formality. Norma leads her people in the solemn mistletoe ceremony and then consults with the Gauls, whose music gives unity to the scene as a whole and reinforces the social framework. But after this Norma gives vent to her private feelings for Pollione in the exuberant, faster-paced cabaletta that concludes the scene. Here the flowery vocal lines almost seem to hint at a defiant denial, while, as Kimbell puts it, “a kind of emotional friction is set up between the solo voice in the foreground and the broader musical background against which it is set.”
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.