Norma is the most ambitious and celebrated of Vincenzo Bellini’s operas. The title character is a powerful Druid high priestess in Gaul, 50 BC, who betrays the spiritual leadership of her people by falling in love with the unfaithful Pollione, the commander of the occupying Roman forces.
The opera is sublime, breaking new ground and demanding of the lead soprano a huge vocal range, immense control and superlative acting. The Canadian Opera Company remounts its 1998 production this week with June Anderson as Norma (a last minute replacement for Elena Prokina). Anderson is a celebrated veteran; the big question is, does she still have what it takes for such an imposing role?
Bellini’s operas stand atop the Romantic canon. But his life is as romantic as his music. Though born to parents of small means in a little town in Sicily, he quickly rose to the top of Italy’s volatile, cut-throat opera scene, second only to Rossini. Think Broadway in its golden age. Italian opera in the 19th-century was big money with composers, colourful impresarios and opera houses churning out works as fast as they could. Opera was the star factory of the Romantic era — and Bellini was a supernova. After a string of highly received, innovative operas, he died at the height of his powers at the age of 33 in 1835.
The blond, blue-eyed Sicilian had a reputation as a dandy. German poet and satirist Heinrich Heine didn’t like him, writing two years after Bellini’s death that, “his gait was so maidenly, so elegiac, so ethereal. The creature altogether looked like a sigh in dancing pumps.”
Does that famous quote ring any alarm bells?
Bellini had passionate affairs with divas of the day like Giulia Grisi and Maria Malibran and with a wealthy married woman Giuditta Turina. But it’s very likely he also had a lifelong love affair with his best friend Francesco Florimo.
This is a contentious topic among Bellini scholars.
Bellini and Florimo, another southerner, met at school and were devoted to one another. After Bellini’s death, Florimo became the librarian at the music college they both attended and the keeper of all Bellini papers. He burned scores of letters and forged others in a conscious attempt to shape Bellini’s place in history. He wouldn’t release his own letters to Bellini. Florimo lived to be 86; he never married.
The letters that remain are brimming with florid declarations of love and devotion. “Receive my embraces and believe that I am always your Bellini, who loves you,” Bellini writes in one. “My love for you has become necessary for my very existence.” Commentators caution about reading too much into this style of language; apparently, that’s just how (some) southern Italian male friends wrote to each other back then.
Outlining difficulties modern observers have understanding Bellini and Florimo’s relationship, biographer John Rosselli goes one step further: “To call it homoerotic is literally true but unenlightening. To call it homosexual is to introduce a category people in the early 19th century did not bring to bear on such a relationship…. It therefore distorts. Physical homosexual relationships were known (by most, abhorred); but people did not connect them with deep friendship.”
You can just see Rosselli turning up his nose just at the whiff of physical intimacy between men.
Biographer Stelios Galatopoulos finds such dismissals naive and possibly ignorant. We can’t know one way or the other, he asserts.
For Galatopoulos, what’s more revealing are the many occasions when Bellini has to contend with Florimo behaving like a spurned lover. “In Bellini’s case, his actions, his attitude toward marriage and, above all, his intense concern for Florimo’s blatant jealousy of any liaison that even remotely implied sexual activity speak volumes,” writes Galatopoulos. Tellingly, the women are jealous of Florimo in return.
When Bellini informs Florimo of his newfound love for the married Turina, Bellini gets the cold shoulder, then letters apparently dripping in irony. In response, Bellini writes, “I know that deep down you have always been and still are opposed (I don’t think that I can change my nature) to any of my amorous passions.”
A cheating wife, her dashing, artistic lover and his jealous, conniving man — sounds like an opera, doesn’t it?