Norma occupies a very particular place in operatic repertoire, a dramatic work of lyrical beauty, not least in the most famous of Norma’s arias, Casta diva (Chaste goddess), her first-act prayer to the moon. Oroveso calls the Druids to watch for the new moon in Ite sul colle, o Druidi (Go to the hills, O Druids) and in the second act he warns of Pollione’s possible successor, inveighing against Roman tyranny in Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno (Ah! To the disgraceful yoke of Rome). Norma has notable duets with Adalgisa and with Pollione, revealing different aspects of her tragic character.
The action takes place in Gaul during the Roman occupation, about 50BC.
Scene 1. The sacred grove of the druids
The warriors and druids of the tribe of the Sicambri have gathered to wait for the rising of the new moon, when Norma, the high priestess, will perform religious ceremonies and consult the will of the god Irminsul. Inspired by the chief druid, Oroveso, father of Norma, the people express the hope that the god will favor their projected uprising against the hated Romans.
The Gauls go off into the forest and Pollione, the Roman proconsul, and his friend, the centurion Flavio, enter cautiously. Pollione confides that he no longer loves Norma who, although supposed to be a vrigin priestess, has secretly borne him two sons. He is now in love with a temple virgin, Adalgisa, and fears Norma’s vengeance when she learns of his perfidy. As the Gauls can be heard returning, the Romans leave, as it is death for them to be found there.
The Gauls reassemble and Norma appears, reproaching them for expressing warlike sentiments in the sacred grove and before the will of the god has been ascertained. She tells them that the time is not yet ripe for rebellion, but prophesies the eventual fall of Rome. She cuts the sacred mistletoe, invokes the moon and prays for peace. The druids and warriors continue to press for war, with the death of Pollione as the first blow. Norma promises them that he will fall, but expresses to herself the hope that he will return to her with all the ardor of his first love, which she has felt to be waning.
Everyone leaves the grove except Adalgisa. Pollione returns and tells her of his love. Revealing that he has to leave for Rome the next day, he begs her to fly with him. Although she returns his love, she is unwilling to break her vows, but eventually allows herself to be persuaded.
Scene 2. Norma’s secret dwelling in the forest
Norma is distressed by the presence of her two sons, who remind her of Pollione, and she tells her attendant Clotilde to take them away and hide them safely.
Adalgisa approaches nervously to confess that she is tormented by a love which is stronger than her vows. As she relates the coures of her love, without naming its object, Norma grows more sympathetic, remembering her own similar experiences. She releases Adalgisa from her vows and asks who she loves. To her horror Adalgisa points to Pollione, standing outside. He rushes in, too late to prevent her revelation, and is confronted by Norma, who accuses him of treachery to her and deceit towards Adalgisa, whom she does not blame, but pities.
Pollione prepares to leave and calls on Adalgisa to join him. She, overcome with horror at his perfidy, spurns him, while Norma threatens him with vengeance. The sacred gong is struck, summoning Norma to the altar, and she tells Pollione that it portends his death.
Scene 1. Inside Norma’s dwelling
Norma hovers over her sleeping children with a knife, intending to kill them and then herself, fearing their fate if they are left unprotected. But, even to be avenged on Pollione, she is unable to kill them and tells Clotilde to summon Adalgisa.
Still resolved to die, she tells Adalgisa to marry Pollione and entrusts the children to her, begging her to take them to Rome and protect them. Adalgisa protests that she has no further thoughts of marrying Pollione or leaving her country and begs Norma, in the name of her children, to sapre herself. She promises to plead with Pollione to return to Norma, expressing her confidence that he has already repented of his disloyalty, and Norma is persuaded.
Scene 2. The druids’ temple
The Gauls, although still plotting rebellion, are prepared to dissemble for a while longer if necessary.
Norma’s hopes that Pollione will return to her are shattered by Clotilde, who tells her that he still plans to take Adalgisa away with him. Impelled by her wish for vengeance, Norma strikes the sacred gong to summon the tribe, and tells them that the time is now ripe for rebellion, urging them to sound their war-cry. Oroveso asks her to complete the necessary sacrificial rites.
Pollione is dragged in, having been caught trying to carry off Adalgisa by force. Norma sends the tribe away, saying she must interrogate Pollione privately. She exults that he is now in her hands, but promises to free him if he will swear to forget Adalgisa. She is so enraged by his refusal that she threatens to punish Adalgisa too, and is triumphant when he is reduced to pleading – not for himself, but for Adalgisa.
Norma calls the druids and warriors back, promising Pollione that she will punish him through Adalgisa. She announces that she has discovered that one of the priestesses has broken her vows and betrayed her country.
When the tribe demands to know the name of the offender, Norma finds herself unable to name the innocent Adalgisa, and names herself, bidding Pollione see what a noble soul he has spurned. He is overcome by remorse at last, declaring that his love for her has returned and he will gladly die with her. Preparing to ascend the pyre which is being constructed for their execution, Norma confesses the existence of her sons and begs her father Oroveso to protect them. His resistance is overcome by her pleading and Norma and Pollione ascend the pyre together.
La traviata is one of those operas that has retained a firm position in current repertoire, never failing in its effect. The prelude to the first act uses the tender and melancholy music that later precedes Violetta’s death, as well as Violetta’s plea to Alfredo to love her. The music preceding Violetta’s death returns in the prelude to the third act. At Violetta’s there is a lively drinking-song or brindisi, Libiamo (Let us drink), led by Alfredo, and as the guests go into the next room, he declares his love for her in Un dì felice (One happy day). Her response to his declarations is heard in her later reflective Ah, fors’è lui (Ah perhaps it is he my heart desires). In the second act Alfredo considers the happiness that life with Violetta has brought him in De’ miei bollenti spiriti (Fervent my dream of ecstasy). Germont’s attempts to remind his son of their home, Di Provenza il mar, il suol (The sea, the land of Provence), have provided baritones with a moving aria, and there is later contrast in the masquerading gypsy and Spanish dances at the house of Flora Bervoix. There is, of course, much else in a work, which, although set in 1700, might equally be supposed to have a contemporary setting and relevance in the Paris of the 1850s, an element of realism less apparent in operas drawing, according to tradition, on the historical activities of kings and princes.
A room in Violetta’s house in Paris
A brilliant party is in progress and Violetta is receiving her guests. One of them begs leave to introduce a friend, Alfredo Germont, who has long admired her from afar. Baron Douphol, Violetta’s current protector, takes a dislike to Alfredo and refuses to propose the toast when the wine is poured. Instead Alfredo proposes the toast – to love. Violetta answers that love, like all things, must fade: it is best to enjoy the pleasures of the fleeting moment.
The guests move into another room to dance but Violetta, who had been ill, suddenly feels faint and begs them to go on without her. Only Alfredo remains, anxious about her. He tells her he has loved her from the moment he first saw her a year ago. Violetta warns him not to look to her for love, since she has never experienced it. She tells him to leave and think of her no more, but gives him a flower with permission to return it when it has faded. “That will be tomorrow!” exclaims Alfredo, and she agrees. Alfredo goes, followed shortly afterwards by the other guests.
Left alone, Violetta begins to wonder whether she could love Alfredo, but rejects the possibility. A woman in her position cannot afford such luxuries. She will keep her place in the social whirl of Paris and forget about serious affairs of the heart.
Under the balcony Alfredo’s voice can be heard repeating his declaration of love.
Scene 1. A country house near Paris
Alfredo’s passion has won the day. Three months later he and Violetta, deeply in love, have cut themselves off completely from fashionable. life. Alfredo’s joy is disturbed one morning when he learns from Violetta’s maid Annina that Violetta has had to sell her last possessions, because they have been living on her money which is now all gone. He rushes off to Paris to see what he can do to raise some money, leaving a message for Violetta. She comes in with an invitation from Flora, one of her fashionable friends, which she puts aside laughing, not intending to accept.
Alfredo’s father suddenly appears and accuses her of having ruined his son. When she proves to him that all the money spent has been hers he is more polite, but goes on to ask her to give up Alfredo because the liaison is spoiling his daughter’s marriage prospects. Broken-hearted, she agrees – thereby winning his deep admiration. They agree that the only way she can convince Alfredo that their idyll is at at end is to tell him she no longer loves him.
Telling Germont to wait in the garden to be ready to comfort Alfredo, she begins a letter to him telling him of her decision. He arrives back before she has finished. Somewhat to his astonishment she bids him a tearful farewell, telling him to love her always as she loves him.
A few minutes after her departure he receives her note by a messenger and understands that she has left for ever. His father appears and tries to comfort him, reminding him of his happy childhood in far Provence. Alfredo refuses to be comforted and, seeing Flora’s invitation, assumes that Violetta will be returning to her former life and to the baron. He determines to follow her.
Scene 2. A room in Flora’s house
Another party is taking place. Dancers dressed as matadors and Spanish gypsies entertain the company and tell their fortunes.
Alfredo arrives alone, followed shortly afterwards by Violetta accompanied by the jealous baron who forbids her to speak a word to Alfredo. The men begin to play cards and Alfredo wins, remarking bitterly that he is unlucky at love but lucky at cards. Drawn by their mutual antagonism he and the baron begin to play against each other. Their rivalry increases as Alfredo continues to win.
Violetta watches, full of anguish. When the guests retire to another room for supper she begs Alfredo to stay for a moment and entreats him not to anger the baron. Alfredo refuses to believe that her concern is for him rather than the baron, particularly when she refuses his request to leave at once with him. She tells him she has sworn to avoid him and he assumes that only the baron could have had the power to extort such a promise from her. To avoid telling him the truth she says she loves the baron.
Desperate, Alfredo calls the others back and throws his winnings at Violetta, calling them to witness that he has now repaid all his debts to her. Everyone turns on him for his unkindness to Violetta and even his father, who comes in at this point, reproves him for insulting a lady. Coming to his senses Alfredo himself is horrified by what he has done. The baron challenges him to a duel for his discourtesy.
Violetta, overcome by weakness and emotion, assures Alfredo that she does not deserve his scornful treatment; she still loves him and one day he will be filled with remorse at what he has done.
Violetta is alone except for her maid Annina. She is practically penniless and dying of the consumption which has been racking her. A carnival is taking place in the streets outside while she lies in bed.
She has had a letter from Germont which she reads through again: Alfredo has wounded the baron in a duel and had to leave the country for a while. Germont has told him of Violetta’s sacrifice and he is coming back to ask her forgiveness. But Violetta knows that she has little time left and that her days of love with Alfredo are over.
He arrives and they have an ecstatic reunion. Their love is stronger than ever and they declare their intention of leaving Paris forever. But all this emotion is too much for Violetta and she collapses. Alfredo, looking at her closely for the first time, realises the terrible truth that she is dying. She tries to pretend that this is not so by getting up and dressing, but she is too weak and falls to the floor, crying out bitterly against the cruel fate of dying so young just when her hopes had been about to be fulfilled.
Germont arrives with the doctor, ready to embrace her as a daughter. When he too realises her real condition he is struck by remorse at having caused her so much unhappiness. She gives Alfredo a portrait of herself as a keepsake and tells him to marry some pure young girl and be happy. She rises to her feet, feeling a strange new strength, but it is only the last remission of her illness which precedes death. She collapses lifeless, surrounded by those she holds dearest in the world.
Tchaikovsky’s opera was written at the difficult period of his marriage to an apparently infatuated and certainly unbalanced admirer and their immediate separation. It was completed abroad in Switzerland and Italy. Of particular poignancy is Tatyana’s Letter Scene and Onegin’s subsequent answer in the garden. Prince Gremin’s aria in the third act gives depth to his character, as he describes the effect on him of his marriage to the young Tatyana. The dances from the two ball scenes have provided concert audiences with orchestral excerpts from the score.
Scene 1. A garden outside the house of Larina, deep in the country
Tatyana and Olga can be heard singing inside the house while Larina and Filipyevna are working outside and reminiscing about the past, remembering how Larina changed from a foolish romantic girl to a sedate and contented wife.
The peasants of the estate sing as they return from harvesting, and Tatyana and Olga come out to listen. Tatyana’s imagination is stirred by the song but Olga laughs at her, contrasting her own simple, light-hearted view of life with her sister’s moody day-dreaming. The peasants go and Tatyana starts reading. Her mother is anxious because she is so pale but Tatyana answers that she is not ill, only deeply moved by the sufferings of the characters in her book.
The appearance on the scene of Lensky, Olga’s fiancee, causes a flutter, particularly when it is discovered that he has brought a stranger. Lensky presents Onegin, a neighbor in the country. Tatyana falls in love with him on the spot and he, in an aside to Lensky, expresses surprise that his friend, as a poet, should have preferred the prosaic Olga to the more striking Tatyana.
The couples separate. Lensky and Olga leave Tatyana and Onegin to make polite conversation in which she explains that she does not find the country boring, as he supposes, because of her fondness for reading and day-dreaming. Then they wander off and Olga and Lensky return, the latter expressing his devotion to Olga, whom he has loved since childhood. As night falls they go inside.
As Tatyana and Onegin return, Onegin complains about the tedium of sitting by his dying uncle’s bedside. Filipyevna notices Tatyana’s emotion and wonders whether she might be falling in love with Onegin.
Scene 2. Tatyana’s bedroom that night
Tatyana is restless and asks Filipyevna about her youth and marriage, but does not really listen to the nurse’s story of her arranged marriage. Crying out that she is in love, she asks to be left alone. She writes a letter to Onegin in which she expresses her love, her fears and her doubts.
When Filipyevna returns in the morning, Tatyana asks her to have her grandson take the letter to their neighbor. She is unwilling to speak Onegin’s name but angry when the nurse does not immediately realise which neighbor.
Scene 3. Another part of the garden, the next morning
The servant girls are singing as they pick berries. Tatyana waits fearfully for Onegin.
Politely he tells her that love is not for him. If he had been meant to have a wife he would have had none other than her, but as he is he would make her miserable. He offers her the love of a brother – perhaps even more – but warns her to be more cautious in future, as not everyone will be so forbearing as he.
Scene 1. The reception room of Larina’s house some months later
A party is taking place in honor of Tatyana’s name day. As the guests dance and express their approval of the arrangements Onegin overhears some women criticising his character. Angrily he determines to be revenged on Lensky, whom he blames for dragging him to the party, by flirting with Olga. Lensky is at first bewildered and then angry, and reproaches both Olga and Onegin; and Olga refuses to dance with him as a punishment. An elderly guest, Monsieur Triquet, reads out some couplets to the embarrassed Tatyana.
Lensky resumes his attack on Onegin who tries to calm him, claiming that he has done nothing to upset anyone and pointing out that people are beginning to take notice of them. Larina begs them not to quarrel in her house and Lensky sadly recalls the happy times he has spent there while Onegin regrets the length to which the affair has gone and Tatyana gives vent to the jealousy which his attentions to Olga has aroused in her.
Eventually Lensky flings out a definite challenge which Onegin is unable to refuse. As they leave the room Olga falls in a faint.
Scene 2. Near a water-mill early the next morning
Lensky and his second, Zaretsky, are waiting for Onegin. Lensky reflects with gentle melancholy on the passing of his youth, his possible impending death and his love for Olga.
When Onegin appears (with only his manservant Guillot as his second, to the disapproval of Zaretsky, a stickler for correct duelling procedure), he and Lensky muse separately on the possibility of making up their quarrel, but decide they have gone too far to retreat. Onegin fires first and Lensky falls dead. Onegin is appalled.
Scene 1. The ballroom of a nobleman’s house in St Petersburg some years later
A ball has just begun and Onegin, who is standing apart, muses on his life since the duel. He had fled his country estate and travelled but now, bored, he has returned, only to find himself at a ball. Among the guests is an elegant lady whom he recognises with astonishment as Tatyana. She notices him and tries to control her emotion. When he asks an old friend, Prince Gremin, who she is, he finds that she is Gremin’s wife. Gremin bursts into a eulogy on Tatyana and his love for her.
Onegin and Tatyana meet, both apparently calm, and they exchange a few civilities before she tells her husband she is tired and they leave. Onegin realises with astonishment that he is in love with her.
Scene 2. A drawing room in Prince Gremin’s house
Tatyana holds a letter which Onegin has written to her declaring his love. She is upset that he has returned to disturb her peace of mind. Onegin enters to find her in tears and falls at her feet. She collects herself and reminds him of his rejection of her in the garden. When he exclaims that he now realises his mistake she asks if he finds the society woman a more suitable prize to add to his conquests than the simple country girl and he tries to convince her that his feelings are genuine. They both reflect on the happiness that has passed them by, and Tatyana tells Onegin that fate has decided otherwise: she is married and he must leave her.
Passionately he tries to persuade her, but she reminds him that he is an honorable man. She admits that she does still love him but tells him that now she is married she will remain faithful to her husband. In vain he protests. She bids him farewell forever, and leaves him overcome by despair.