Over the centuries, opera composers and librettists have created scores of spectacular roles for sopranos.
It's true that many of the most familiar and beloved soprano roles involve operatic characters regarded, perhaps justly, as stereotypical -- fictional women who all too often occupy the standard ground of lovesick innocents, pining away for men who have more on their minds than just romance. Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madame Butterfly comes to mind.
Then there are the vivacious soprano characters who take advantage of their beauty to seduce their way to positions of fame and fortune, only to be denounced as harlots, and worse, by the same men who put helped to them there. Think about Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata and the title character in Massenet's Manon.
However these roles are analyzed, and perhaps criticized, the characters and the sopranos who portray them have become wildly popular. Playing such roles demands an extraordinary range of technical mastery, dramatic expression and musical artistry, and singers have been rising to meet those challenges for centuries now. Still, of all the great soprano roles in operatic history, there's one that may cover more dramatic territory, and demand more of those who perform it, than any other.
The title character in Bellini's Norma is a role with emotions ranging from haughty and demanding, to desperately passionate, to vengeful and defiant, and the singer must convey all of this while confronting some of the most treacherous vocal music ever written.
If that weren't intimidating enough for any singer, sopranos portraying Norma must also carry the burdens of tradition. Both the opera and and its composer have become almost synonymous with the specific and notoriously torturous brand of opera known as bel canto (literally, "beautiful singing"), a style whose aficionados are often brutal when assessing its practitioners.
In the early decades of the 19th century, bel canto composers, who also included Rossini and Donizetti, concentrated on sheer beauty of tone and vocal agility. Their long, flowing lines, built from luscious melodies, are often extremely difficult to perform; singers have to maintain the line and support the tone, over phrases stretched out to seemingly endless lengths.
Though Bellini died when he was 33, having written only 10 operas, his music may be as close as anyone came to pure bel canto, and Norma has become emblematic of everything the style came to embody.
Since the opera's premiere, at La Scala in 1831, the title role has both challenged and inspired generations of the world's finest singers, including one from the current generation -- the exciting young Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva. On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Yoncheva as Bellini's Norma in a production from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London. The cast also includes mezzo-soprano Sonya Ganassi as Adalgisa, and tenor Joseph Calleja as Pollione.