Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Capuleti e I Montecchi - Lyric tragedy in two acts (1830)
Romeo, head of the Montecchi, in love with Giulietta Ė Agnes Baltsa (mezzo); Capellio, head of the Capuleti - Gwynne Howell (bass); Giulietta, a Capuleti in love with Romeo Ė Edita Gruberova (soprano); Tebaldo, a Capuleti, Giuliettaís intended husband Ė Dano Raffanti (tenor); Lorenzo, a physician and friend of Capellio Ė John Tomlinson (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, London/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, ROHO, Covent Garden, London, April 1984
EMI CLASSICS 6406372 [58.36 + 71.24 + bonus disc]

I Capuleti e I Montecchi was Belliniís sixth opera and followed Zaira, his first real failure 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 Veniceís La Fenice, 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. However, Lanari was aware that Pacini had also accepted a commission from Turin and might not fulfil his obligations to Venice, so he offered Bellini a revival of Il pirata under the composerís personal supervision for January 1830 on the understanding that if Pacini did not deliver, Bellini would be invited to fulfil the commission for a new work.

Il pirata was given to acclaim at La Fenice on 16 January 1830 by which date Pacini had failed to turn up. With Paciniís 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, the contracted librettist, 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.

The story suited Belliniís artistic sensibilities but with barely six weeks to the premiere he also took short cuts. He saw an opportunity to use music from the failed Zaira. Charles Osborne (The Bel Canto Operas. Methuen 1994) suggests that Bellini recycled nearly half the music from Zaira into his new opera. Straight plagiarisation 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 extensive re-use of music from Zaira 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.

Set in thirteenth century Verona the story predates Shakespeare whilst Romaniís libretto shows signs of his awareness of the English dramatistís version. Belliniís 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 the Carnival season at there on 26 December 1830, and where Bellini had to adapt the music to accommodate two mezzo-sopranos in the leading roles. This perhaps influenced Claudio Abbado to cast the tenor Giacomo Arragal in the role alongside Renata Scotto as Giulietta in a production at La Scala. With the necessary transpositions it certainly removed the romanticism from the role and is generally considered a failure. The original flourished in Italy and abroad for some years before fading from the stage. This live recording was made of a new production at Londonís Covent Garden over several performances in April 1984. The version seems to be that of the original at La Fenice without any of the later additions or amendments.

The music is an early example of Belliniís plangent elegiac melody that reached its apotheosis in the composerís Norma and I Puritani. Muti never over-drives the tempi, as was often his wont with other composerís music. This allows the recurring leitmotif for the lovers to keep impacting on the emotions each time it intrudes in its various manifestations and dramatic situations. Both female soloists are well matched. The Greek mezzo Agnes Baltsa, who had debuted in 1968 as Cherubino, has a particular light tangy quality, which, despite the many heavy Verdi mezzo roles in her repertoire, she still exhibits here. This allows for the lightness and shade of Romeoís varying emotions to emerge as well as ensuring that she does not overpower the lighter flexible coloratura of Edita Gruberova who portrays the youthful Giulietta with some distinction. The final scene as Romeo enters the tomb and asks for the coffin lid to be lifted (CD 2 tr. 16) and then pours out his grief to the apparent lifeless corpse (tr.17) before taking poison (tr.18) illustrates to perfection Baltsaís skills of singing and characterisation. The following duet as Giulietta revives brings the best out of Gruberovaís interpretive skills with the two voices intertwining in their desperation.

The lower voiced Capellio and Lorenzo are well taken by Covent Garden artist Gwynne Howell and, Wotan to be John Tomlinson, respectively. I personally do not particularly like the somewhat bleating tone of Dano Raffanti as Tebaldo (CD 1 tr.4). However, the biggest drawback of this performance is the dry acoustic of Covent Garden and the recessed sound, aggravated by stage movement. As far as audio recordings are concerned, I found the live concert performance with Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko under Luisiís baton very satisfying (see review). The two appeared at Covent Garden in their respective roles in 2009 and I live in hopes that a performance was videoed, although I have heard no positive news of that. Meanwhile the only video I know is that from Dynamic and from which the audio recording included in that labelís Complete Operas of Bellini is derived (see review) from a performance from the 2005 Martina Franca Festival where both the female roles are taken by sopranos.

The bonus CD-ROM has a synopsis and full libretto with translations in English, French and German.

Robert J Farr

Stage noise and recording limitations are a significant drawback here.