Concert. Romeo and Juliet sung by Katarina Karnéus and Kerstin Avemo in this concertante version.
I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) This concert performance of Bellini’s popular variation on Romeo and Juliet sees the continuation of The Göteborg Opera’s bel canto series together with its first visiting conductor Giancarlo Andretta. Over the last decades this work has become popular on the continent, but it hasn't been performed in a Swedish opera house since a German guest performance in Gothenburg 1837. The international mezzo star Katarina Karnéus, who sings Romeo, is appearing in her first role as a soloist under the auspices of The Göteborg Opera. Coloratura Kerstin Avemo returns as Juliet after her great success as Lucia di Lammermoor in 2011.
Please note: The premiere will be audio recorded and presented in Swedish Radio, channel P2, on August 18th 7.30pm.
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
– a masterpiece at short notice
Vincenzo Bellini’s (1801-1835) great breakthrough as a composer of opera came with Il Pirata at La Scala in Milan in 1827. At that point Rossini had gone to Paris and Donizetti was yet to break through. So Bellini could be hailed as the great new composer in Italy, called “the Sicilian Orpheus”, and was able to reign virtually supreme for several years. His greatest rival was the fast-working Giovanni Pacini, who often supplied four to five operas a year to the various Italian opera houses. Bellini loathed this rival, whom he considered to be shallow and slapdash. Unlike Rossini and Donizetti, Bellini was a precise composer, who preferred to take time over his work, and therefore often tried to get paid more for each piece.
Stress behind the scenes
When the successful Il Pirata was to be staged at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice at Christmas 1829, it transpired that Pacini had double-booked himself. He had signed a contract with La Fenice for an opera named Giulietta Capellio (Juliet Capulet), but was under a commitment to write operas for Turin and Naples at the same time. He would never be able to fulfil his contract. La Fenice had not had a great success for several years, and the management was anxious that there should be one now. What to do? Bellini was asked if he could take over this assignment, to première in March 1830. He accepted the proposal, despite the fact that time was tight. He was to use an existing libretto by Felice Romani, the greatest librettist of the day. This had previously been successfully set to music under the title Giulietta e Romeo by Niccolò Vaccai in 1825. For a model, Bellini also looked to yet another Giulietta e Romeo by his much respected teacher, Antonio Zingarelli, dating from 1796. Out of respect for him, Bellini opted not to give his opera the same title, but I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Capulets and Montagues).
None of these operas are based on Shakespeare. The bard from Stratford was not especially well known in Italy at that time. Instead Romani based his libretto on an Italian play by Luigi Scevola from 1818, which is in turn based on a renaissance version from 1530 by Luigi da Porto, one of the main sources for Shakespeare’s drama. Thus it could be said that Bellini’s opera comes even closer to the original tragic renaissance couple from Verona. It also explains why there is so much we do not recognise from Shakespeare; here there is no nurse and no Mercutio, and the sequence of events is somewhat different.
Two women in the leading roles
Bellini took stock of the singers at the theatre, who had also performed in his Il Pirata. He was extremely satisfied with the mezzo-soprano Giuditta Grisi, who sang the lead female role, but was considerably less so with the tenor and the baritone. It was therefore decided to make Romeo into a breeches role sung by Grisi – as had also been the case with Vaccai’s opera Giulietta e Romeo. It was to become a leading role opera for the two women – the role of Giulietta came to be sung by the soprano Rosalbina Carradori-Allan, while the tenor role as Romeo’s rival Tebaldo was relatively limited.
As time was short, Bellini decided, for once, to re-use old material, something that was nothing new for Rossini or Donizetti. The previous year, Bellini’s Zaira had been a failure in Parma and it was therefore thought that this opera would not be staged elsewhere. But he was nevertheless happy with the musical concepts and wanted them to spread. He therefore based I Capuleti largely on this score, reworked and with the libretto adapted. Giulietta’s famous aria “Oh! quanto volte”, however, comes from an even earlier Bellini opera, Adelson e Salvini.
I Capuleti was enormously successful in Venice, and the work spread rapidly. It would also be the first Bellini opera on a Swedish stage, actually in Göteborg at the Hamngatsteatern in 1837 with a German guest performance. Since Giuditta Grisi had also sung the part of Romeo in Vaccai’s opera, the finale from that was often used instead of Bellini’s, as she sang this work on other stages in Italy. It was particularly successful when she sang the role opposite her sister Giulia Grisi as Giulietta. Later the same year it was Donizetti’s turn to achieve his breakthrough with Anna Bolena, and after that Bellini had to share the throne, although it was now that his three true masterpieces came: La sonnambula (1831), Norma (same year) and I puritani (1835). After the last of these, this deeply gifted Sicilian Orpheus, with his beautiful flowing locks, tragically died during a cholera epidemic, at the age of just 34. The whole of Italy mourned.
About the work A characteristic of Bellini’s work that also goes right through I Capuleti is the endlessly long, melancholy vocal lines – “melodie lunghe, lunghe”, as Verdi later enviously said of his deceased colleague. Bellini was also admired by Wagner, although he despised bel canto opera as a genre. However, he described Bellini’s orchestra as being like a monstrously large guitar that accompanied the singing. The long cantilenas have sometimes been compared with Chopin’s melancholy piano compositions. One example is the finale of the first act, when Romeo and Guilietta sing a unison melody, a phrase that lasts for as many as 31 bars, with only brief pauses for breath. However, this does not feel constructed, but flows completely organically in a way that no composer was able to achieve after him. Another example is “Oh! quante volte”, mentioned above, Giulietta’s inward-looking aria in the first act as she waits for Romeo. Naturally this demands a great deal of the singers, including excellent breathing technique. In truth the song is central.
In the circumstances, I Capuleti was a relatively short opera, and it has already been explained why it differs so much from Shakespeare’s drama. It is as if Romani’s libretto does not always quite manage to enhance the plot and the emotions, although the music does. There is nothing about how the lovers speak of their love for one another, unlike in Shakespeare, where they incessantly revel in the bewitching power of love in poetic phrases. The long duet in the first act is mostly about flight and death, considerably less about love and the fact that they actually love each other. But we are told that through Bellini’s music. With his melancholy melodies, he aims straight for our hearts, giving us not a moment’s doubt of the young lovers’ feelings for one another.