The title role in Vincenzo Bellini's Norma is one of the most demanding parts in any opera.
As music critic David Littlejohn once wrote, it "calls for an authentic bel canto soprano voice, one that can be both mercurial-birdlike and witchy-dramatic, which drastically reduces the field of available singers at any one time." Some of the greatest sopranos in history — Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Rosa Ponselle, Giuditta Pasta — earned their reputations, in part, by singing it.
A happy convergence makes the St. Petersburg Opera Co. production possible. Artistic director Mark Sforzini heard Elizabeth de Trejo in several starring roles at Opera Tampa in recent years and thought Norma would be the perfect vehicle to bring her to St. Petersburg. The New York-based de Trejo, in turn, trusted Sforzini to provide the appropriate support — both artistic and emotional — for her first chance to perform it.
"Bel canto singing demands certain things," Sforzini says. "You expect an impeccable legato. You expect beautiful attacks on all the notes. You expect very musical shaping of the phrases, and of course the bel canto music is very embellished and ornamented. There's an expectation that the fast notes will be very cleanly, beautifully executed. . . .
"Yes, it's definitely difficult. But is it impossible? No. Are there singers who can sing this music beautifully? Yes. We have three lead singers (including another soprano and a tenor) who sing really incredibly well."
Norma, which premiered in 1831, is the story of a Druid high priestess in some of the territory conquered by Julius Caesar. While her people yearn to repel the invaders, Norma has secretly borne two sons by Pollione, the Roman official in charge of the occupation. When Norma learns that Pollione has betrayed her and plans to take another priestess back to Rome, she is confronted with a series of harrowing choices.
At one point, she worries that her children may be carried off to Rome as well, where they could be turned into slaves and abused. Rather than allow that to happen, she considers killing them softly in their sleep. "Imagine the anguish of a person having to make that judgment," says de Trejo, who has a 3-year-old son.
Norma also must confront her own feelings of shame, anger, friendship, forgiveness in a roller coaster of emotion requiring great stamina. "To go there as an actress and to have to sing such challenging lines on top of it," says de Trejo, "it's the combination of the two that makes it so great."
In the end, Norma decides what to do. She confesses the breaking of her priestly vows to her community and offers herself as the human sacrifice required to sanctify the Druid rebellion. (In a moving scene, she also persuades her mortified father to take in her children.) Her fate is tragic, but there is no weakness in her selflessness.
"It's the most noble character I've ever played," agrees de Trejo. "The most noble."