“Through singing, opera must make you weep, shudder, die.”- Vincenzo Bellini
Today we are in Catania, the second largest city in Sicily after Palermo, famous for her majestic location at the foot of Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
Curiosity #1: The word Etna comes from the Greek αἴθω (aithō), meaning “I burn”
Curiosity #2:A legend related to Greek mythology surrounds Mount Etna. Typhon was the last son of Gaea and Tartarus*; he was a god described as a huge monster whose head could touch the stars, the arms were made of snakes, the eyes were glowing red, the breath could turn into fire and whose was body covered in wings. He challenged Zeus as he wanted to take over Mount Olympus, and this lead to a battle that showed the cowardice of the rest of the gods: they all fled the scene, except for Athena. The battle ended with Zeus flinging Typhon back into Tartarus and throwing Mount Etna on top of him, forever trapping Typhon with the weight of the volcano. It is believed that every time Etna erupts, it is Typhon moving and using his breath of fire trying to escape.
* Another theory is that Hera created Typhon, as she was mad at Zeus for creating Athena on his own, and decided to create a god that was more powerful than Zeus.
Back to our story: Catania, home of Roman amphitheaters, Greek acropolis, Baroque churches, and some of the most amazing Italian food. But it is also the hometown of Vincenzo Bellini, one of the most influential Italian opera composer of the 19th century. Famous for his flowing melodic tunes, Vincenzo Bellini was also called “the Swan of Catania”, and wrote and incredible amount of pieces in a very short life (he died of dysentery in a Parisian suburb when he was just 33 years old). His most famous piece of work is Norma, a tragedy in two acts that takes place in Gaul during the Roman occupation.
Norma is the Druid High-Priestess, who broke her vows to start an affair with the Roman proconsul of Gaul, Pollione. They have two children together but to cover the scandal, they are being raised by Clotilde, Norma’s loyal friend. On the background, the Druid Oroveso (that is also Norma’s father)is leading the Gallic population against the Roman occupiers.
As if this love story wasn’t complicated enough, Pollione falls in love with with one of the virgin temple priestesses, Adalgisa, and convinces her to follow him to Rome, so that they can get married.
Norma confesses to Clotilde that she suspects Pollione is having an affair; Adalgisa, deeply confused about her feelings, goes to see Norma and ask for her advice: she confesses that she fell in love with a Roman, and while describing how she feels, Norma in parallel thinks about her relationship with Pollione when it first started. While she is connecting all the dots, Pollione enters the room, looking for Adalgisa, and now it is proper drama: Norma calls Pollione a traitor, he tries to persuade Adalgisa to leave with him, saying that his fate is to leave Norma; she then encourages the young priestess to go with him, but Adalgisa is so loyal to Norma that declares that she would rather die. So Norma demands Pollione to go, leaving behind his children—and his honour.
At this point, Norma is on her own, and starts thinking about murdering her children, so Pollione can never have them. She then realises that she loves them too much, so she asks Adalgisa to marry Pollione and raise their children as her own. Adalgisa refuses, and instead wants to speak to Pollione to convince him to return to Norma.
We are now at the sacred altar, where Oroveso announces to the Druids that Pollione has been replaced by a new leader. Meanwhile, Clotilde informs Norma that Adalgisa is back and she failed to convince Pollione to get back with Norma. In anger, Norma takes to the altar and calls for war against the Romans, and this would require a human sacrifice. Clotilde enters the room, saying that the temple has been desecrated, and brings in the culprit which is obviously Pollione. Oroveso demands that Pollione is the one who is sacrificed, but Norma approaches him and says that if he gives up his love for Adalgisa, she will spare his life. He refuses, so Norma announces that they need to sacrifice a priestess who has broken her vows, and orders the pyre to be lit. She is being asked who is to be sacrificed, while Pollione is begging her to stay silent. So Norma reveals her secret: she is the one to be sacrificed, as a high priestess who has broken her vows and has fallen in love with the enemy.
Pollione can’t believe what is happening, and falls in love with Norma again. She leaps into the flames, and Pollione Pollione joins her, saying: “Your pyre is mine as well. There, a holier and everlasting love will begin”.
Such a masterpiece, this opera has everything: war, sins, affairs, love, what is not to like? Despite all these elements that would suggest this tragedy to be a success, the premiere of Norma was almost a fiasco. It took some time for it to be appreciated in Italy, and then in Europe.
But what has pasta to do with Norma? I am getting there. There are two stories linking this tragedy to one of the most famous Sicilian dish: pasta alla Norma.
- It is believed that for the premiere of this masterpiece, on 26 December 1831, a Sicilian chef created this dish to celebrate the opera of Bellini.
- The other story is that in 1920, the Italian writer Nino Martoglio tasted this dish for the first time and exclaimed: “This is a real Norma!”, comparing the perfection of that pasta with Bellini’s masterpiece.
And like the opera, this pasta dish has all the ingredients for the perfect result! Here is the recipe:
Ingredients for 4 people:
– homemade maccheroni, 320g (recipe and video here https://theparmigianawhisperer.blog/2020/06/16/and-they-say-romance-is-dead/)
– aubergines, 500g
– garlic, 2 cloves
– basil leaves, 5
– hard salted ricotta, 200g
– chopped tomatoes, 500g
– olive oil, 3 tablespoons + the oil used to fry the aubergines slices
1.Make your maccheroni (recipe and video here https://theparmigianawhisperer.blog/2020/06/16/and-they-say-romance-is-dead/) and leave them to dry. If you decide to use dry pasta obviously skips this step.
2.For this pasta I usually don’t chop the garlic, I just heat the olive oil at medium temperature, and let the cloves to just golden a bit and just remove them once the sauce is done
3.Add the chopped tomatoes, and cook at low temperature for one hour.Add salt as you like. Remove the garlic cloves once it is done
4.In the meantime, slice the aubergines very finely
5.Heat the oil used to fry the aubergines in a pan, and fry the slices until golden
6.Remove the aubergines and put them in a plate covered in kitchen paper, to absorb some oil. Add some salt
7.Boil some water and cook the pasta, once it is done drain it ad mix it with the tomato sauce
8.Chop the basil leaves and add them to the pasta
9.Add the aubergines slices and serve
10.Grate the salted ricotta, and spread it on top of the pasta