‘Casta Diva’ from the first act of Bellini’s Norma is one of the most beautiful and taxing of the great bel canto arias. Its long line requires sublime control on the part of its interpreter as well as a rich and beautiful sound. Below are 12 interpretations by sopranos known for the role and some by those who never sang Norma onstage. Some are ideally suited for the role – others, well judge for yourself.

Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) was the most renowned Norma of her time. She made her operatic debut at the age of 21 opposite Enrico Caruso in the Met’s first performance of Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino. She didn’t get to Norma until 1927 when she became only the second soprano to sing the role at the Met. Everyone who heard Ponselle in the house raves about the beauty of her sound – but on records, though impressive, there’s a slight hollowness to her sound and her high notes are sometimes a bit strained. When I started attending the Met Ponselle had only been retired a little more than a decade and a half. Many of the regulars there had heard her and without exception thought she had the most beautiful Italian soprano they had ever heard. A recording can be an imperfect document of reality.  Rosa Ponselle Casta Diva

Maria Callas (1923-77) was the dominant Norma of the fifties. She sang the part 89 times during that decade. This recording show her voice at its best. There is no wobble or shrillness that marred the later part of her career – short as it was. Casta Diva Maria Callas. Callas includes the cabaletta ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna’ in this performance taken from a recital.

Claudia Muzio (1889-1936) was born in the opera house. Her father was a stage manager at, among many houses, Covent Garden and the Met. Her mother was a chorister. She had a dark velvety voice that was tinged with emotion. She died at age 47 of ‘heart failure’, though the exact cause of her death still remains uncertain. Claudia Muzio Casta Diva

Zinka Milanov (1906-89) sang Norma 16 times at the Met, with mixed success. Though her voice was ideal for Verdi, the fioritura required of Bellini’s Druid priestess gave her trouble. The lush beauty of her voice is apparent on this commercial recording. Zinka Milanov Casta diva

Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) never sang Norma. The ornamentation need to succeed in the role was beyond her skills. Her singing of this aria solves the problem by completely eliminating any of the runs and roulades needed. Still the voice is beautiful. She was much better in Puccini and Verdi roles, though the last 10 years of her career were marred by a lot of yelling. Renata Tebaldi Casta Diva

Joan Sutherland was a vocal miracle – a large and rich voice married to an extraordinary range and technique. Her interpretation of the aria is just about as good as can be imagined or wished for. La Stupenda lives up to her appellation. Joan Sutherland -Casta Diva

Leontyne Price (b 1927) was a great Verdi soprano. As far as I know, she never sang Norma. She gives the aria a rather ponderous interpretation that indicates she was wise to avoid Bellini. Leontyne Price Casta Diva

Anita Cerquetti (1931-2014) was a singing rocket who burst on the Italian opera scene with celebrated appearances in the hardest roles in that repertory. She was sensational for a few years and then exploded, retiring at age 30. In 1958 she was singing Norma in Naples. Callas who was supposed to sing the role in Rome cancelled. Cerquetti stepped in for her and commuted between the two cities singing the role in both productions. A feat, but a fatal one. Still, an interesting voice for the brief period it lasted. Anita Cerquetti Casta Diva

Montserrat Caballe (b 19933) was one of the great sopranos of the second half of the 20th century. Basically a lyric soprano, she started in the bel canto repertory and then moved into heavier roles. Her superior technique allowed her to make this transition without vocal deterioration.  Renowned for her melting pianissimos and extraordinary technique she gives a moving rendition of the piece. Montserrat Caballe Casta Diva

Slovakian singer Edita Gruberová (b 1946) started as a high soprano. She made her Met debut in 1977 as The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Latter in her career she moved into bel canto roles. She added Norma to her repertoire in 2003. While her voice has broadened, her sound is not ideal for Casta Diva. Edita Gruberova Casta Diva

Renée Fleming (b 1959) is a lyric soprano whose tone is beautiful and who has an equally fine technique. Norma is a role she would never sing in performance, but as a recital piece Casta Diva fits her voice very well. Her reading is excellent though she vears close to crooning in a few spots. Renee Fleming Casta Diva 

Anna Netrebko (b 1971) currently rules the operatic world like a reincarnation of Catherine the Great. She started as a light soprano, but has matured into a fully developed dramatic soprano capable of singing the great Verdi roles with power and beauty. She sings both the aria and its cabaletta with beauty and force. I don’t think she has done the opera in a staged performance, but she clearly has all that is need for the role. So I expect she’ll do it soon. Anna Netrebko Casta Diva 

The lyrics to the aria are below with an English translation.

Casta Diva, che inargenti,              Pure Goddess, whose silver covers
queste sacre antiche piante,          These sacred ancient plants,
a noi volgi il bel sembiante,            we turn to your lovely face
senza nube e senza vel…               unclouded and without veil…

Tempra, o Diva,                                Temper, oh Goddess,
tempra tu de’ cori ardenti,               the hardening of you ardent spirits
tempra ancora lo zelo audace,      temper your bold zeal,
spargi in terra quella pace,             Scatter peace across the earth
che regnar tu fai nel ciel…               Thou make reign in the sky…