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In the same year that Darwin set sail in his Beagle, Bellini rocked the Milan opera world with not one but two operas.
The Sicilian was just thirty years old and at the absolute pinnacle of his musical life, commanding huge fees and producing operas at a rate of knots. La Sonnambula had already done very well for him in March 1831, transferring to Paris and London almost as soon as the sets could be painted. Later in the year, far from resting on his laurels, Bellini produced his most enduring hit: a lyric tragedy in two acts centred on a druid called Norma, the daughter of the chief druid, Oreveso.
The brightest shining jewel in its vocal crown is the exquisite ‘Casta Diva’ – an aria Bellini rewrote some eight times. It comes from Act I and is Norma’s ‘song to the moon’, as it were. Having cut some mistletoe, she sings to the lunar goddess, praying for peace – as well as hoping for luck when trying to defeat the Romans.
Maria Callas made the song her own for a few generations of opera-lovers although, today, it has been reclaimed by singers such as Cecilia Bartoli.
Cecilia Bartoli (soprano); Orchestra of the National Academy of Saint Cecilia; Myung-Whun Chung (conductor).