Norma Synopsis

The Story of Bellini's Opera

Bellini opera scene
Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Written by Romantic-era Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini in the spring of 1831 and premiering at La Scala in Milan in December of that year, "Norma" is a tragedy in two acts that take place in 50 B.C. Gaul. It features Bellini's signature long melodies and is considered a masterpiece of the bel canto genre, which is defined by a highly expressive style of singing.

"Norma" also features one of the all-time great soprano arias, "Casta diva." As such, the opera is considered a defining role for operatic sopranos, including Maria Callas, whose debut as Norma in 1952 at Covent Garden is considered by many opera aficionados to be one of the best performances of the role to date. 

Act 1: A Gathering of Druids

At a sacred grove located deep within a forest, a number of Druids gather around an altar to pray for strength against the occupying Roman armies. The high priest, Oroveso, leads them in their prayer. Their ritual completed, the Druids leave the forest. Moments later, Pollione, the Roman proconsul, arrives with his centurion, Flavious, and tells him that he no longer loves Oroveso's daughter, Norma, even though she broke her vow of chastity with him and bore him two children. Pollione has instead fallen in love with one of the virgin temple priestesses, Adalgisa.

When the sacred bronze instrument that calls the Druids to the forested temple is sounded, the Romans quickly depart. The returning Druids beg Norma to support them in their plan to fight the Romans, but she tells them now is not the time for war. Instead, she sings a prayer for peace, in the form of the aria "Casta diva," to the "chaste moon goddess," hoping to prolong Pollione's life after having visions of the Romans' defeat. When Norma leaves, Adalgisa, who has been praying below the altar, ascends to pray for strength to resist Pollione's advances. When he arrives, however, she gives in to his request and agrees to travel to Rome with him the next day so they can be married.

Once in her bedchamber, Norma confides to her servant that she fears Pollione loves another woman and that they are fleeing to Rome the following day, but she has no idea who this woman could be. Adalgisa arrives with a heavy heart, seeking guidance from Norma. Adalgisa tells Norma that she has been unfaithful to their gods because she has given her love to a Roman man. Norma, recalling her own sin, is about to forgive her friend, until Pollione arrives seeking Adalgisa. Norma's love quickly turns to anger, and Adalgisa realizes what has happened. Unaware of the relationship that had existed between Norma and Pollione, Adalgisa refuses to go away with her lover because of her extreme loyalty to Norma.

Act 2: Norma Changes Her Mind

Pacing beside the beds of her small children late that evening, Norma is overcome with the urge to murder them so Pollione can never have them. However, Norma's love for them is too strong, and so she summons Adalgisa to take them to Pollione. She will give up his love so that Adalgisa can marry him and raise Norma's children as her own. Adalgisa refuses, and instead tells Norma that she will speak with Pollione on Norma's behalf and convince him to return to Norma. Norma is moved by Adalgisa's kindness and sends her away on the task.

Back at the sacred altar, Oroveso announces to the Druids gathered around the altar that Pollione has been replaced by a new leader, who is much crueler, and that they should refrain from revolting for now in order to give them more time to plan their next battle. Meanwhile, Norma has arrived and awaits for Adalgisa's return. When Adalgisa finally shows up, she brings bad news: Her attempt to persuade Pollione to return to Norma was unsuccessful.

Filled with rage, Norma takes to the altar and calls for war against the Romans. The soldiers chant along with her, ready to fight. Oroveso demands a life to be sacrificed so that their gods will grant them victory. Suddenly, the Druid guards interrupt Oroveso. They have captured Pollione desecrating their temple. Oroveso declares Pollione as the sacrifice, but Norma stalls. Pulling her former lover aside, she tells him that he can have his freedom as long as he gives up his love for Adalgisa and returns to her instead. Pollione rejects her offer. Out of despair, Norma confesses her sins to her father in front of all the Druids and offers herself as the sacrifice. Pollione cannot believe Norma's benevolence, and as a result he falls in love with her again. He rushes to the altar and takes his place by her side on the sacrificial pyre, where they are both engulfed by the flames.