Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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The Pollione-Norma Backstory: the Dramatic Logic of Bellini’s ‘Norma’

August 26th, 2014

In anticipation of San Francisco Opera’s September 5, 2014 opening night of the 2014-15 season, in which a new Kevin Newbury production of Bellini’s “Norma” will be unveiled, I am reposting my essay of the dramatic logic of “Norma” that I originally posted on November 29, 2005, in concurrence with a previous production of “Norma”. The images have been added in anticipation of the new production.


Perhaps three decades ago, I had a conversation with Robert M___  about whether the plot of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” was plausible. He could not understand how a priestess could have two children, while performing her official duties.

I said that she was an authority figure who had the ability to control her public appearances and was not accountable to the public. “Oh, she took sabbaticals”, Robert replied.

[Below: Vincenzo Bellini in 1830, age 29; resized image, based on an anonymous portrait, from wikipedia commons.]

Vincenzo Bellini (1801 -1835) *gouache  *5.8 cm  *circa 1830

For most of the time I have known the opera, I have regarded Pollione as a person who pursues dangerously high-risk behaviors (exceeding the danger most Roman proconsuls would have taken for granted), whose fantastic luck finally fails him in the third act when he is captured by the Druids.

As I considered the story yet again, with the Fall 2005 San Francisco Opera production of “Norma”, I have come to regard Pollione’s behavior, while certainly not virtuous, as less risky than I originally had conceived it.

Consider the situation in “Norma”. Indeed, you have the community of the Druids and you have an established encampment of Romans, with both Druids and Romans having long-term strategies for the region, that envision the extirpation of the other force.

However, the behaviors of both Druids and Romans are tightly controlled by their leaders.

The Romans are a military force, required to observe military discipline, with the Roman military leader Pollione embued with absolute authority.

The Druids are also warriors, and have a home-field advantage to offset the Roman’s power, but themselves are subject to tight constraints on their behavior by their religious leadership.

We know that Norma is able to determine if and when the Druids initiate offensive action.

Clearly, a person with that absolute control over warriors also has the power to place certain geographic locations off limits to anyone but herself, her servants, and the initiates to her order of priestesses – invoking strict taboos to prevent any intrusion into her sacred compound.

[Below: Sonda Radvanovsky as Norma in the 2014 San Francisco Opera production of Bellini’s “Norma”, edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


What then might be the backstory as how Pollione and Norma came to meet and mate?

At some point in time, perhaps a decade before the opera’s story-line begins, Roman scouts have come upon the sacred places and, without making their presence known, bring the information to the attention of Pollione.

He, likely with Flavio, decides to investigate in person, observes the priestesses, finds them no imminent threat, and becomes fascinated by their rituals and behaviors.

At some point, Pollione encounters Norma personally. Despite the fact that they are leaders of opposing forces — and that, presumably, neither is fluent in the other’s language — empathy, sexual attraction and love develops between them.

[Below: David Korins’ model sets for the new Kevin Newbury production of Bellini’s “Norma”; resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


As they begin to care for each other, both have the power to prevent their own communities from encroaching on their privacy.

During the first years of their relationship, she bears him two children. In time the host of pressures on their manifestly difficult relationship, results in their drifting apart emotionally. Yet, he continues (in the company of Flavio) to visit the sacred place.

Pollione and Flavio are extremely discreet, because none of the other priestesses have become aware of either their presence nor of the existence of Norma’s children. Only Clotilde knows about Pollione and the children.

[Below: Marco Berti as Pollione in the 2014 San Francisco Opera production ; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Several years later, when visiting Norma’s compound, Pollione encounters Adalgisa. By now, he is able to converse, with a practiced seductiveness, in her language. He becomes infatuated with her, and consciously wishes to disentangle himself from Norma and his family by her.

A return to Rome with Adalgisa, leaving Norma (whose position after all is socially and economically secure) seems to him the solution to all his problems.

Adalgisa comprehends the potential precariousness of her position should she accompany Pollione on his return to Rome. Her mentor is Norma, whose counsel she trusts, and she makes the decision to confess all to her.

[Below: the designs for Pollione’s costumes in Kevin Newbury’s new production; edited image, based on drawings, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


This is the point in which the story of the opera begins, all of which flows naturally from the events chronicled here. The backstory also provides a way of having more sympathy for Pollione’s ultimate decision to join Norma in her self-sacrifice.

Pollione is certainly aware that he will soon die at the hands of the Druids.

But, when he realizes that Norma is sacrificing herself to save Adalgisa, whose life Pollione has jeopardized by his actions, his ambivalence towards Norma is replaced by admiration and love.

[Below: the designs for the costumes of Clotilde and the Gallic women; edited image, based on drawings, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Immolation is a horrible way to die (although the Druids would certainly have figured out even worse fates for him), but reconciliation with Norma and a shared ritual suicide restores his personal honor and brings him peace.

Tags: 2005-2016 William's Commentaries