While learning Latin in high school, we were supposed to memorize parts of Julius Ceasar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War. The first sentence has been forever etched in my memory: “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur” (“All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third.”). Gaul of the 1st century AD is a setting for Norma, a celebrated opera by Vinzenzo Bellini. The most famous Norma of all times was undoubtedly Maria Callas, perfect for the role of a priestess with her natal Sun in Sagittarius in conjunction with Vesta. It is worth pointing out that the very name Norma was invented by Felice Romani, the author of the libretto. Probably it derives from the Latin for “rule, standard.” It seems that the heroine was indeed both a giver of laws and a victim of them.
The libretto, entirely fictitious, tells the story of a Druid High Priestess and leader of her people at the time when Gaul (a region of Western Europe which was inhabited by Celtic tribes; today covering France, Belgium, most of Switzerland, among others) was occupied by the Romans. Scene 1 of the opera takes place in the grove of the Druids. Oroveso, Norma’s father and the Chief Druid priest, tells the gathered Celts to pray for victory against Roman invaders. The sacred ceremony is being secretly observed by two Romans: Pollione and Flavio. What we learn later is that Norma who is secretly in love with Pollione, has broken her priestess’s vows for him and has borne him two sons, whom she raises by herself in a secluded house. Pollione appears to have abandoned her, which causes her a lot of anguish; she desperately tries to conceal her suffering from her people. Pollione confides in Flavio that he no longer loves Norma because he had fallen for a younger priestess – Adalgisa.
Dressing a priestess or bride,found in the palaestra of the Forum Baths at Herculaneum
The Druids expect Norma to break peace with the Romans. In response, Norma prays to the Chaste Goddess (Casta Diva is the Italian title of this celebrated aria) for peace telling the Druids that time is not ripe for war. It seems that by praying to the goddess for peace Norma is also pleading in her own cause: she is in great distress fearing that Pollione does not love her. The English translation of Casta Diva goes:
“Virtuous Goddess, covering with silver
these sacred ancient plants,
turn towards us your fair face
cloudless and unveiled
Temper, oh Goddess,
you temper the ardent hearts
furthermore temper the audacious zeal,
spread on earth the same peace
that make you make reign in heaven.”
Here the aria is sung by Maria Callas:
Later that night Pollione prevails upon the hesitant Adalgisa to elope to Rome with him the next day. The young woman decides to confide in her High Priestess, who is also her closest friend. She visits Norma in her house. Her confession is met with forgiveness and understanding. Norma, reminded of her own deep love for Pollione, promises to free Adalgisa from her vows so that she can be happy with her lover. In her case, the damage is already done, her sacred vows broken. On that, Pollione suddenly appears, to which Adalgisa confesses that this is her lover. In an extremely emotionally charged scene, the raging Norma attacks him, so does Adalgisa, while Pollione curses the day he met Norma and beseeches Adalgisa to accompany her. She firmly says no, remaining loyal to Norma.
The second act starts very dramatically. Norma is watching her sons asleep with a knife in her hand. She cannot bring herself to murder them. In anguish, she calls for Adalgisa and pleads her to marry Pollione and take Norma’s sons away from Gaul to spare them from the punishment of the Druids. Adalgisa is aghast and professes her eternal friendship to Norma, renouncing Pollione. She even vows to persuade Pollione to take Norma back. Pollione is not persuaded, to which Norma summons the Druids to war against the Romans, who in the meantime are plotting to abduct Adalgisa. However, the plot is thwarted and Pollione is captured by the Druids in the temple. They demand he be sacrificed by Norma, but she cannot bring herself to stab him, telling the crows she will question him instead. After the questioning she orders a pyre to be built in order to sacrifice a priestess who has broken her chastity vows. Everyone thinks she means Adalgisa but Norma means herself. She is the one who has broken the holy vows and the pyre has been built for her. She begs her father to spare her sons. Pollione is deeply touched by her nobility and declares he still loves her. They both step into the flames to die.
The role of Norma is said to be one of the most difficult in the entire history of the opera. Maria Callas was admired for her emotionally stirring and passionate rendering of the heroine’s anguish. Uncontrollable passions, raw emotions, seem to be the subject matter of the opera. The friendship between the two priestesses, both united in their acute sense of an injustice committed, is extremely touching. The prayer to the Chaste Goddess is like a distant hope for redemption from anger, selfishness and war that will bring nothing but destruction. However, it seems that before that kind of tranquility can ever be attained, the flames of passion need to engulf us, consume us, just as they did with Norma and Pollione. No norms can stop that from happening.