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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830) [135.00]
Nicole Cabell (soprano) – Giulietta; Joyce DiDonato (mezzo) – Romeo; Saimir Pirgu (tenor) – Tybalt; Eric Owens (bass) – Capellio; Ao Li (bass) – Lorenzo
San Francisco Opera/Riccardo Frizza
rec. San Francisco Opera, October 2012
extras: in conversation with Joyce DiDonato [8.38] and Nicole Cabell [5.33]: Joyce DiDonato in San Francisco [2.00]
EUROARTS 2059668 [2 DVDs: 135.00 + 16.00]

The story of Romeo and Juliet is nowadays inextricably linked with the name of William Shakespeare but Shakespeare was not even the first writer to tackle the subject in the English language. Some thirty years before his “Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy” appeared on the London boards, a long narrative poem by Arthur Brooke entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet was published. In his preface to that poem the writer referred to another treatment “lately set forth on the stage” of the same plot, now lost. Similarly Bellini was not the first operatic composer to be inspired by the topic of the Capulets and the Montagues. At least two other Italians had preceded him – Zingarelli (1796) and Vaccai (1825) – but Bellini’s appears to have been the first treatment that received any long-term degree of success. Felice Romani based his libretto not on Shakespeare, but on the Italian version of the story by Matteo Bandelli. This did not stop Berlioz criticising Romani heavily in his Memoirs for abandoning Shakespearean elements in the plot such as the Ball at the Capulets and the Balcony Scene. Berlioz was heavily in thrall to Romeo and Juliet, the play in which he had first encountered and fallen in love with Irish actress Harriet Smithson who inspired his Symphonie fantastique and was later to become his wife before Berlioz himself treated Roméo et Juliette as a symphony.
When Berlioz encountered Bellini’s opera in Florence he also objected strenuously to the casting of Romeo with a female singer (not a castrato) noting that although Zingarelli and Vaccai had done the same there was no “law that Juliet’s lover must always appear shorn of his manhood.” These considerations seem to have weighed with Claudio Abbado in his live recording from 1966, when the conductor re-assigned the role to a tenor – not Luciano Pavarotti, who was relegated to the role of Tybalt, but Giacomo Aragall. Later recordings have returned the role to a mezzo-soprano, which not only restores Bellini’s original tessitura but also lets us hear the one passage of the opera of which Berlioz approved, where the lovers unite in unison at the conclusion of Act One. This he described as having “an extraordinary force and bold impetus.” It is the original version of Bellini’s score which we are given here.
Apart from the essential ingredients of the warring families and the two lovers, the only real point of correspondence between Romani’s libretto and Shakespeare’s play comes with the figure of Lorenzo, here the Capulet’s doctor who furnishes the sleeping potion that precipitates the death of the lovers. This rather extended series of coincidences is probably the weakest element in Shakespeare’s plot, and it is not surprising that Garrick — and following him, Berlioz in his symphonic treatment — found the need to alter somewhat the scene in the tomb to suit the taste and good sense of the audience. It was not until the end of nineteenth century that a sense of textual propriety restored Shakespeare’s original. It is significant that when Bernstein and Sondheim created their own version of the tale for West Side Story this was one element that was jettisoned wholesale.
The resulting libretto remains a rather broken-backed affair, and oddly enough given the title of the opera the dramatic focus is almost entirely on the Capulets. The Montagues are reduced to a couple of brief choral appearances, with the exception of Romeo, who is the only member of the family to have a solo role. In this production they only appear briefly onstage at the end of Act One, when they are dramatically indistinguishable from the Capulets. During the first scene the latter hold the stage in isolation, and here Saimir Pirgu distinguishes himself in the role of Tybalt where his elegant cantilena line rivals that of the young Pavarotti in the Abbado recording. Eric Owens is a suitably malignant Capulet, and Ao Li is a sympathetic Lorenzo.
Bellini may have written his score in some haste for a production in Venice — and it's not as lengthy as Norma or I Puritani — but his facility for melody is everywhere in evidence. The results are a real gift for the two principal singers. Oddly enough they are not given a love duet as such – their encounters tend to centre around the need for escape rather than their romantic attraction for each other. However the opportunities for delicate shading and passionate argument are seized by Nicole Cabell and Joyce DiDonato, both of whom are in excellent voice. They also fully relish their final scene, where following the Garrick precedent the lovers are re-united before their death.
Producer Vincent Boussard in his booklet note explains that he sought to restore some degree of dramatic verisimilitude by treating the action from the psychological viewpoint of the lovers. There is almost no scenery to speak of apart from a huge staircase for the Capulet’s hall. This causes some problems for the female members of the chorus to negotiate in their court dresses. The set is otherwise restricted to a few props suspended in front of abstract cycloramas. These props – saddles for the stables, a washbasin for Juliet’s bedroom – seem oddly realistic when set against the generally non-representational backdrop. In fact the cameras tend to minimalise this dichotomy with their generally close focus on the principal singers. The co-production between San Francisco and Bavarian State Opera was first seen in Munich, but although that was given with different singers there is no sense here that what we are witnessing is a revival. There is plenty of dramatic interaction between the soloists and nothing here strikes a false note. Even the confrontation between Romeo and Tybalt in Act Two — which leaves Tybalt alive at the end — has plenty of fire and involvement. This is helped by the passionate singing of DiDonato and Pirgu, although Romeo seems to have mislaid the sword that he was waving around rather ineffectually in the finale of Act One.
The extras, oddly hived off onto a very short second DVD, consist of shortish interviews with the two principals, with DiDonato’s very brief tribute to the assistance she received from San Francisco Opera in the early days of her career forming a somewhat inconsequential conclusion. In her earlier ‘conversation’ she defends Boussard’s production in effusive terms; it was not apparently well received by critics. Also she comments favourably on Christian Lacroix’s costumes although to my eyes their generally nineteenth century air contrasted with leather jackets for Romeo and Tybalt and a decidedly twentieth century short skirt for Juliet seem unremarkable. However in this of all operas it is the singing that really matters and the superb rendition of the score we are given here – with Riccardo Frizza obtaining splendidly nuanced playing from the orchestra – will enchant viewers and listeners alike.
Bellini’s treatment of the subject of Romeo and Juliet may pale into insignificance by comparison with more fully Shakespearean full-length versions by Berlioz, Gounod or Prokofiev. However Bellini's opera is not altogether unworthy of its theme, especially when as well performed as it is here. Archiv currently lists two alternative versions on DVD, both issued in 2006. Neither can boast a cast as starry as that we are given here although Patrick O’Connor in the Gramophone was enthusiastic about the modern-dress production with Patricia Ciofi as Juliet.
Paul Corfield Godfrey