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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Capuleti e I Montecchi - lyric tragedy in two acts (1830)
Romeo, head of the Montecchi, in love with Giulietta – Elina Garanca (mezzo); Capellio, head of the Capuleti - Tiziano Bracci (bass); Giulietta, a Capulet in love with Romeo – Anna Netrebko (soprano); Tebaldo, a Capulet, Giulietta’s intended husband – Joseph Calleja (tenor); Lorenzo, a physician and friend of Capellio – Robert Gleadow (bass-baritone)
Wiener Singakademie/Heinz Ferlesch
Wiener Symphoniker/Fabio Luisi
rec. live, Vienna, Konzerthaus, 22, 25, 28 April 2008
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4778031 [76.10 + 51.26]
Experience Classicsonline


I Capuleti e I Montecchi
was Bellini’s sixth opera and followed Zaira, his first real failure, premiered in Parma in May 1829. After the disaster of Zaira, Bellini took a holiday with his lover before returning to Milan in June 1829 to meet various theatre impresarios. Alessandro Lanari, who worked in association with Venice’s La Fenice theatre, wanted to introduce the composer to the city. He would have liked to commission Bellini to write a new work for the forthcoming Carnival Season commencing on 26 December 1829. However, this was not possible, as both Persiani and Pacini had already been commissioned, with Romani booked to provide the libretto for each. The ever-shrewd Lanari was aware that Pacini had also accepted a commission from Turin and may not fulfil his obligations to Venice. With this in mind he offered Bellini a revival of Il pirata under the composer’s personal supervision for January 1830. To this opportunity Lanari added an understanding that if Pacini did not deliver, Bellini would be invited to fulfil the commission for a new work.

Bellini went to Venice in December 1829 and Il pirata was given to acclaim on 16 January 1830 by which date Pacini had failed to turn up. With Pacini’s opera scheduled for the last week in February Bellini signed a contract on 20 January. With the Carnival Season ending on 22 March time was short for composer and librettist and both took short cuts. Romani revised and simplified a libretto titled Giulietta e Romeo that he had previously written for Nicola Vaccai and which had been staged in Milan in 1825. With barely six weeks to the premiere Bellini also did some recycling.

The story suited Bellini’s artistic sensibilities. He also saw an opportunity to use music from the failed Zaira. Charles Osborne (‘The Bel Canto Operas’. Methuen 1994) suggests that Bellini re-used nearly half the music from Zaira for his new opera. Straight plagiarism was much too risky and Bellini worked very hard at adapting the old music much of which underwent major changes of structure and key. This perhaps helps to explain why Bellini never sought to revise the earlier work. He also used several other melodies from Zaira in both Norma, and to a lesser extent, in Beatrice di Tenda.

Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi was eventually premiered, a little later than planned, on 11 March 1830. It was an immediate and immense success and was performed eight times in the ten days left before the end of the season. After the third performance a huge crowd preceded by a military band playing music from his operas conducted Bellini to his lodgings! The opera was seen twenty-five times at La Scala, opening its Carnival season on 26 December 1830, and elsewhere in Italy, before quickly spreading abroad.

The story predates Shakespeare and appears to have been derived from an earlier novella. Set in thirteenth century Verona the opera tells the tragic story of Romeo, a Montague, who loves Giulietta, daughter of Capellio, leader of a rival faction whose son has been killed by him. Despite Giulietta returning Romeo’s love Capellio determines to marry her to Tebaldo, one of his own faction. Romeo attempts to persuade Giulietta to go away with him but she refuses to leave her family. Lorenzo persuades Giulietta to take a potion that will make her appear dead. Lorenzo is unable to convey this information to Romeo who, hearing her funeral dirge as he prepares to fight Tebaldo, rushes to her tomb and takes poison himself. Giulietta revives as Romeo dies. She in turn falls dead across his body.

I was looking out at the blowing blizzard as this issue arrived for review, thinking that I should have been, except for family illness, sitting in the sun. Somewhat despondent I thought I would listen to a brief extract to see how the recording sounded. I was so gripped by the verve and vivacity of Fabio Luisi’s conducting in the drama of the first scene that my spirits were immediately lifted. They went even higher when I heard the fresh and ringing flexible lyric tenor of Joseph Calleja (CD 1 tr.3) matched by the strong implacable tones of Tiziano Bracci as Capellio (CD 1 trs.3-5) and, later, Robert Gleadow’s sonorous and sympathetic Lorenzo (CD 2 trs.2-3). But I Capuleti e I Montecchi is more about the two female principals and I went on to the rest of the first act with its long duet between Romeo and Giulietta after Lorenzo brings then together and Romeo pleads with her to leave with him. My mealtime went by the board as I listened to the whole work! But emotion is no basis for rational analysis, which I hope is in part the basis for my reviews. Somewhat reluctantly, I put the discs aside for a few days before sitting down with full critical faculties in over-drive.

First of all I confirmed and reinforced my first impressions in respect of the male singers and Luisi’s well-paced conducting. Yes, he starts with fast tempi but he also knows how singers breathe and express themselves, particularly women, who in this performance, in best bel canto tradition, decorate the words and often soar above the stave. In the opening recitative of the act one duet, along with its catchy tune, the tessitura for Romeo is quite high, likewise that for Giulietta. Elina Garanca as Romeo has no difficulty with the tessitura whilst Anna Netrebko warbles in the vocal stratosphere with equal facility whilst also decorating the vocal line and later exhibiting an admirable trill (CD 1 tr.15). As the duet continues (trs.16-18) the vocal skill of the two singers is commendable as each fully represents the nuances and emotions of the words as they duet in unison. They finish with a joint diminuendo to die for. I was following the libretto and here lies the only criticism of the whole: there are times, particularly in this long duet, when it is difficult to differentiate the voices. It is a fact that the ranges of the soprano and the lyric mezzo have much overlap, with the centre of the voice, its upper or lower extension, and particularly its timbre, determining singers’ preferred designation and fach. As I noted in my recent review of Elina Garanca’s disc of Bel Canto Arias (DG 00289 477 7460 GH) her timbre is distinctly on the light side and matches her top extension. Meanwhile, Anna Netrebko’s voice is capable of much variety of expressive vocal colours, particularly in her lower voice making her interpretation more womanly than the adolescent ingénue that is often the norm. In vocal terms this skill complements Netrebko’s flexibility and soprano extension in the creation of a very well thought out interpretation. In the final scene in the tomb, the vocal distinction between the two divas is less of an issue, with each giving full vent to their expressive skills and with the vocal timbres as well as dramatic separation more distinct (CD 2 trs.12-14).

As I note in my review of the performance of I Capuleti e I Montecchi included in the recent Complete Operas of Bellini on the Dynamic label (see review) there was a period when it was policy to cast two light sopranos for the roles of Giulietta and Romeo and even a tenor as Romeo. In both the theatre and on record it is more usual to have Romeo sung as a trouser role by a mezzo. The 1984 live EMI recording from Covent Garden paired the light coloratura of Edita Gruberova and the lean tangy mezzo of Agnes Baltsa (EMI CMS 7 64846 2). The RCA recording of 1997 features the very light voiced Eva Mei alongside the distinctly darker, but flexible, Vesselina Kasarova. The third CD of that issue includes the final scene from Vaccai’s earlier opera of the same name that Maria Malibran chose to insert in 1832 as she did not think Bellini had provided her with appropriate display opportunities (RCA 09026 68899 2). These extracts illustrate that although displaced by Bellini’s opera, Vaccai’s creation has many strengths.

Although the booklet shows the singers in informal day dress and located as for a studio recording, this performance is denoted as a live recording from the Vienna, Konzerthaus. As there are neither stage noises nor applause I assume it was a concert performance with the downside of these facets being patched out. The result has all the benefits of frisson but without the intrusive interruptions and extraneous noises. The whole is admirable and realistic with the orchestral sound bright and forward and the singers’ voices slightly recessed. The discs are presented in multicoloured opening box format with a picture of the two divas on the front. There is a full libretto with translations in English, French and German as well as an extended essay and synopsis in the same languages.

It is in act two in particular that Bellini exhibits the flowering of the long and near-seamless cantilena, allied to dramatic effectiveness, his hallmarks in the works that followed, particularly La Sonnambula, (with Bartoli and Florez, to be reviewed), Norma (see review) and I Puritani (see review). Their apogee is to be found here in the final scene (CD 2 trs.12-15) wonderfully realised by the chorus, soloists and the orchestra under Fabio Luisi who relishes the Bellinean melody and cantilena without losing the drama of the whole.

This performance becomes a benchmark for future recordings.

Robert J Farr



 


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