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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 – Joyce DiDonato (mezzo); Capellio, head of the Capuleti – Eric Owens (bass); Giulietta, a Capuleti in love with Romeo – Nicole Cabell (soprano); Tebaldo, a Capuleti, Giuletta's intended husband – Saimir Pirgu (tenor); Lorenzo, a physician and friend of Capellio – Ao Li (bass-baritone)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Riccardo Frizza
rec. live, San Francisco Opera, October 2012
Director: Vincent Boussard Set Designer: Vincent Lemaire
Sound Format: DTS-HD MA 5.1 PCM 2.0
Picture format: HD 1080i full HD. Aspect ratio 16:9
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French
Booklet languages: English, German, French
EUROARTS BLU-RAY 2059664 [135:00 + 16:00 (bonus)]

The story of the Capulets and Montagues predates Shakespeare and appears to have been derived from an earlier novella. Set in thirteenth century Verona, it tells the tragedy 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 on his body.

There are at least two noteworthy audio recordings of I Capuleti e I Montecchi. The first, dating from 1984 features Agnes Baltsa and Edita Gruberovs conducted by Muti (see review). More recently there was a Vienna recording featuring Elena Garanca and Anna Netrebko under Fabio Luisi. This received a Recording of the Month accolade from me (see review). I approached this, having noted the presence of two great female singers in the two main roles, with pleasurable anticipation, even though I knew something of the production's history as a joint effort with the Bavarian State Opera. It only took me as long as the opening chorus, in their top hats, underneath what I mistakenly thought at first was a lighting array and which turned out to be suspended horse saddles, to realise I was into a Regietheater cum concept realisation. In this situation, I have always hoped to read a director’s introduction to his concept and thought myself lucky that on a page of the accompanying booklet was just that. Reading, and re-reading was not on this occasion much help. Why such sparse sets, including Giulietta room containing a modern wash-sink into which, decked in a flouncy strapless gown she has to crouch at one stage (CH.14)? Why are the wedding party in highly colourful dresses sat in serried rows? All in all I haven’t worked out what Vincent Boussard is getting and find his concept something of a nightmare.

Despite the forgoing, and in the cause of duty, I continued watching whilst secretly wishing to close my eyes and enjoy the music and singing, particularly of Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell, the latter unusually bigger voiced and warmer toned than usual. I expected DiDonato to excel in this role and she surely does. Her expressive singing, capacity in expressive vocal decoration, legato singing, enunciation of the words, as well as their expression, all combine to give an outstanding interpretation of the role much as she had achieved in the memorable Metropolitan Opera performances of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (see review). Her contributions to act one scene two (CHs.12-17), and the poignant death of Romeo (CH.32-36), are glorious in all interpretative respects. The fact that Nicole Cabell was able to act and sing so well in the circumstances of her costume and the demands on her athleticism was a pleasant surprise. Whilst I would not suggest that this is her ideal repertoire she fully realises Giulietta’s vocal challenges. Her unison singing with Joyce DiDonato is also a vocal joy (CHs.16-17 and 35).

Having extolled the virtues of the female singers, I regret that I cannot award similar accolades to the male side. In the tenor role of Tebaldo, Saimir Pirgu lacks vocal smoothness. He reaches the high notes, but has not much, or any, beauty of tone; Eric Owens is a nondescript Capellio, lacking sonority. The young Ao Li as Lorenzo made a pleasing impression. Riccardo Frizza brought Bellini’s melodic cantilena and drama to life in the pit and deserved a better setting and male soloists to match his qualities.
APPENDIX - The composition, staging and music of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi.
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, aware that Pacini had also accepted a commission from Turin and might not fulfil his obligations to Venice, offered Bellini a revival of Il pirata, the composer’s third opera premiered at La Scala in October 1827, 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 shortcuts. 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 took shortcuts.

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 recycled nearly half the music from Zaira into his new opera. Straight plagiarisation was much too risky and the composer 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. These were respectively the eighth and ninth of the ten operas he composed before his premature death shortly before his thirty-fourth birthday.

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. It was performed eight times in the ten days left before the end of the season with the advent of Lent, when performance of straight staged opera was forbidden by ordinance of the Catholic Church. Connived at by the Bishops this was circumvented by Rossini and Donizetti with the presentation of staged works having a story of biblical origin, Ciro in Babilonia (1812) and Il diluvio universale (1830) by the respective composers. After the third performance of I Capuletti 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 next carnival season on 26 December 1830. It quickly spread elsewhere in Italy and beyond.

Robert J Farr

Previous review (DVD): Paul Corfield Godfrey