That behemoth of bel canto is finally receiving its New Mexico premiere.
Vincenzo Bellini’s ode to a Druid priestess, “Norma” opens at Opera Southwest on April 8. The opera is sung in Italian, with titles above the stage.
“The role of Norma is considered to be one of the most difficult in the repertoire,” conductor Anthony Barrese said in a telephone interview from Miami. “Many sopranos won’t even attempt it. Bellini meant it to be encyclopedic.”
In fact, Giuditta Pasta, the soprano the composer intended it for in 1831, initially turned him down.
Norma is the priestess of a community of Druids in ancient Gaul who has fallen deeply in love with one of the conquering enemy, the Roman consul Pollione. They have two children together. Adalgisa is the virgin handmaiden with whom Pollione falls in love.
“Norma is so upset that she almost attempts to murder her children,” Barrese said.
Norma enters singing the famous extended aria “Casta Diva.”
“It’s like a prayer to the celestial goddess,” Barrese said. “You’re lost in the sound of the voice. It’s more about the melody of the voice than the lyrics.”
Barrese finally found his Norma in soprano Lindsay Ohse, who appeared in “Tancredi” in 2016. Barrese later worked with her in Rossini’s “Semiramide” in Wilmington, Del.
“I thought if she could do these two roles, she could tackle ‘Norma’,” Barrese said.
The opera also stars John Pickle (“Lucia di Lammermoor”), Justin Hopkins (“William Tell”) and former Santa Fe Opera apprentice Olivia Vote in her Opera Southwest debut.
Italian for “beautiful singing,” bel canto began toward the end of the classical era, straddling the romantic era.
During its 20th century revival, Maria Callas made “Norma” a signature role. Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and Renata Scotto also sang “Norma.” In 2010, Cecilia Bartoli sang it, followed by Sondra Radvanovsky in 2011 and 2017.
“Next to ‘Turandot,’ ‘Norma’ is the most requested opera here,” Barrese said.