by Vincenzo Bellini
Opera North, February 2012

Felice Romani wrote the libretto for all but one of Bellini's operas and the two men had a clear understanding of each other's strengths and skills, and of what was wanted by the Italian public of the time. The only occasion on which they did not collaborate prompted Bellini to put down on paper his fierce instructions for what he felt to be essential: 'Carve in your head in adamantine letters:
Opera must make people weep, feel horrified, die through singing.'

The story of Norma certainly lives up to this aspiration. The title role was written for Giuditta Pasta, the greatest singing actress of the day, and still presents a formidable challenge. The libretto was based on a sensationally melodramatic play by Alexandre Soumet and in both play and opera Norma is a compelling, intensely vulnerable and immensely powerful figure, towering above the other characters, none of whom are as deeply, fully realised.

The story presents a rural, Celtic community knit together by a strong belief system and in every way antithetical to the crude, militaristic rule of the occupying Roman forces. At the centre of this community is the figure of a female priestess, imbued with a spiritual force rooted inextricably in the natural world of trees and rocks and streams, following the phases of the moon and dedicated to worship of the moon goddess in particular.

This idea of connecting with nature was a key element of the Romantic movement in the 19th century, a strong reaction against the rationalist beliefs of the previous century and the industrialisation that these beliefs had brought about. Poets such as Southey, Shelley and Blake all held that man was a part of nature and had a duty to respect and care for the earth and its creatures.

The early 19th century also saw a resurgence of interest in early pagan communities and in the priestly tribe of druids and the sort of bardic mysticism they were believed to have practised. Romani wrote the text for an opera based on this theme in 1817: La Sacerdotessa d'Irminsul (The Priestess of Irminsul) for the composer Giovanni Pacini, before going on to write his more famous text Norma, covering very similar territory, for Bellini in 1831.

This was fertile ground for the Romantics – forbidden love between a druid priestess and a Roman soldier, the true natural passion of an earth spirit compared to the pent-up, stifled desires of a brutalised military man. And an added element of horror, which writers were appalled and fascinated by but often shied away from, lay in the belief that the druids practised human sacrifice. Soumet's original play ends with Norma, like Euripides' Medea, killing both her children before leaping off a high rock to her own death. This ultimate violence is toned down in the opera. Likewise, those deeply Romantic English poets, Wordsworth and Keats, both stopped short at graphic descriptions of blood-soaked rituals, referring to animal sacrifices rather than human and generally softening the effect. They are drawn to the darkness but pull back back from the edge. Wordsworth describes in an early poem, An Evening Walk, an idyllic grove:
'Where oaks o'erhang the road the radiance shoots
On tawny earth, wild weeds and twisted roots;
The druid-stones a brightened ring unfold;
And all the babbling brooks are liquid gold.'
He then goes on to conjure up images of sacrifice but transforms them into something more rarefied and elevated:
'Never shall ruthless minister of death
'Mid thy soft glooms the glittering steel unsheath;
No goblets shall, for thee, be crowned with flowers,
No kid with piteous outcry thrill thy bowers.'
Instead, he believes that the landscape exerts a more benign influence, encouraging 'harmonious thoughts' and 'a soul by truth refined' resulting in the happy outcome of 'Entire affection for all human kind'. Keats explored the prehistoric stone circle at Castlerigg in Cumberland while on a walking tour, describing it as 'a dismal cirque of Druid stone upon a forlorn moor'. And his description of an ancient Greek sacrifice in Ode on a Grecian Urn somehow evokes a much more familiar, damp and northern landscape:
'To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies?'.

The ancient druids left no written accounts of themselves and were first described by Julius Caesar in the 50s BC as a priestly class, wielding much influence and responsible for organising worship and sacrifice to the gods, divination and judicial procedure in Gaulish and British society. The term druid is generally agreed to derive from the old Gaelic word for oak, 'duir', and oak trees are central to druidic culture. As Bellini's opera opens, a chorus of druids awaits the arrival of Norma, their chief priestess, to cut mistletoe in the sacred oak grove as the new moon rises, invoking the tree spirit of Irminsul.

Oak forests once covered much of western Europe and Celts, Baltic tribes, Germans and Slavs all established holy places in oak groves to worship gods of thunder and air and storm, many of whom manifested themselves in the form of lightning bolts. A great tree struck by lightning was seen to provide a channel by which the unpredictable sky gods could reach down to the earth and the world of men. Druids revered the oak above all trees because they believed it to contain the strength and energy of their powerful god Esus. When mistletoe grew on an oak it was seen as especially sacred; the white berries representing the sperm of the god, the seed of life.

Irminsul was both a tree spirit and a part of the tree itself, a tree trunk that acted sometimes as a seat or throne during ritual ceremonies and was sometimes venerated as a life-giving, all sustaining pillar, connecting earth and air. These tree pillars were thought to contain the essence of a god and were worshipped beneath the open sky.

The fact that the druidical tradition, along with other ancient religions, allowed both male and female priests and that the latter were figures of power and authority, often required by their religion to be celibate, appealed directly to the Romantic imagination. Writers could create strong female characters who were nonetheless fallible human creatures, torn between love and duty. In 19th century opera, this would give rise to Cherubini's Medée (Medea), a sorceress who used her powers to take revenge on Jason, the man who loved, used and then abandoned her. Bizet, in The Pearl Fishers, has Leila, a virgin priestess of Brahma whose prayers are required to ensure the safety of the fishermen and who is unable to deny her love for Nadir. She is, however, a mewling milksop compared to Medea and Norma, both toweringly dramatic figures, women who have been wronged, who have loved with passionate intensity and who are faced with terrible moral choices. In this century, both roles were rediscovered and reinterpreted for a new generation by Maria Callas in all her histrionic glory.

Norma is a virgin priestess who is also a mother; a dutiful daughter who has broken all the rules, a spiritual leader who has given herself to a man who represents the opposite of everything she believes in, a believer in the life force who is prepared to bring death. As Bellini required, she weeps, she is horrified, she dies through singing.