Vincenzo Bellini-I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830)

Let me begin by saying that I love Bellini and my fav is La straniera. I fell in love with Puritani, Il pirata, and Sonnambula even before Norma! I even like Zaira, which is ironically the first draft of eight of the numbers in this opera, and I think they worked better in Zaira (failure though it was and is) than in Capuleti. The recording reviewed here is a rarity even for this opera. As Romeo was originally written for a contralto, and today is usually performed by a mezzo-soprano, here is Romeo performed by a tenor. I also do not think this helps all that much, but where else do you get to hear both Giacomo Aragall (Romeo) and Luciano Pavarotti (Tebaldo) at the same time!

Opera in 2 Acts and 6 tableaux (126 minutes): I am so sorry that I haven’t been able to embed videos lately, I switched to a Mac and don’t know all the ropes yet.

The PLOT: It is Romeo and Juliette, just an older Italian version of the story in which Laurence is actually a lay physician to Juliette, Tybalt (who is already engaged to Juliette before the curtain rises) wants to kill Romeo to avenge the latter’s prior killing of Juliette’s brother in battle, and R & J already know each other and he crashes her wedding to Tybalt Also, the conflict is more logical and historical as the opposing families are of Guelph and Ghibelline factions respectively.

Act 1 (77 minutes): Three scenes in the Capuleti palace, the second being Giulietta’s room but otherwise the other two are just “halls”.

Scene 1 (28:30 minutes)

0- The Overture is a fast paced number with timpani and trumpets, it slows up but then quickly gains a momentum before going back to a honey sweet tune first in the woodwinds and then the violins, it is gone before you realize it **.

11 & 15- After very standard jumpy introduction chorus with a little menacing in the middle, otherwise very ordinary, we are introduced to Tebaldo and Capellio in recitative. Tebaldo will avenge the death of his cousin (and soon to be late brother-in-law) to celebrate his wedding to Giulietta in a two part aria with a very sweet tune (the first about avenging the death of the brother * the second about the love of the sister) which is interrupted by Lorenzo claiming that Giulietta is sick with a fever, and can not get married immediately as her father and Tebaldo wish, and the chorus chimes in but then returns for a nice repeat **. The wedding will take place today anyways, men….

22 & 25-Romeo arrives disguised as a peace envoy from the Montecchi proposing that peace can be cemented if Romeo marries Giulietta and become Capellio’s son. Capellio and the Capuleti refuse peace and Romeo (still pretending not to be Romeo) declares that he accepts their demand for more war. The first part is a honey tune for Romeo **, but the war cry is much more standard military *.

Scene 2 (27 minutes)

30- After a mood setting entr’acte with a beguiling horn solo * we meet Giulietta in a slow recitative which is followed by an equally slow and not all that interesting somber melody with harp accompaniment in which she apparently vents her frustrations over everyone’s wedding plans and pines for Romeo. To some extent the number is too serious for what is going on and probably made more sense when it was part of Zaira, and for Bellini at least, it is rather second-rate. Lorenzo tells Giulietta that he has spirited Romeo into her chambers. Romeo says “fly with me” and Giulietta is having none of it. Honour and duty outweigh love, says she, I would rather die of a broken heart.

46-Romeo has a second go of it in a better number that sounds like it is from an early Verdi opera written maybe a decade later **. Both of these arias for Romeo turn into duets with Giulietta as they both ponder how the conflict of interests they share is making life so miserable. Suddenly there is a fanfare, the wedding is about to take place and Giulietta tells Romeo he must go, and he will, but not before another mini-aria, this time for both of them and then some duetting. Fortunately it is tuneful and I had to remind myself that I was not listening to early Verdi but it is melodic in a very standard bel canto sort of way that gets the job done but isn’t all that fantastic.

Scene 3 ( 22 minutes)

70: A very standard introductory chorus of Capuleti ready for wedding time. The middle parts has some brief modulation that is worth looking out for but otherwise we are still amid stock bel canto. The 18 minute finale starts with Lorenzo recognizing Romeo who tells him that the wedding is about to get crashed by an army of 1000 armed Montecchi dressed as Ghibelines. What ensues is almost a comedic chorus in which a jovial sounding chorus of soldiers starts banging away at the palace gates before it dies away rather quickly and we return to Giulietta’s sad mood music again and she starts bemoaning her life again. Things start to look up briefly before they return to sadness. Giulietta is sad far too much in this opera, even when Romeo shows up and asks her to run away with him, she starts to become more agitated rather than calmed by her love. Romeo has a nice, brief (too brief) song before his army starts banging at the doors again. The music starts to rise but no, we fall back down into light accompanied recitative again as Cappelio and Tebaldo discover Romeo and Giulietta, still thinking Romeo is that envoy from the first scene, but then he reveals his true identity and then we finally have something good, a quintet ** with Giulietta plugging away with bel canto lines as the guys tread water below her.

74-Romeo’s army bursts into the hall and at last the finale. Romeo starts us off with male chorus pattering away with a rather nice tenor line joined by Giulietta with a rather lovely tune **. The last minute has some good dramatic sounding orchestra/choral/soloist climaxing as the act rapidly ends.

Act 2 (Three scenes, the first a repeat of the first act, followed by an outdoor scene and finally the Capuleti crypt. Running Time: 49 minutes)

Scene 1 (14 minutes)

5: By this point, every time the music turns sad it should become like a leitmotif to the listener that the next person who sings is going to be Giulietta, and here she is in a recitative, joined by Lorenzo who tells her that to escape being taken by Tebaldo she has to take this drug that will make her seem dead. A really good aria for Giulietta in which she says she does not fear death ** just before Capellio orders that she leave for Tebaldo’s castle at dawn.

9: She declares that she is dying and for forgiveness in a rather touching bit of high soprano bel canto which works well for the audience ** but which her father furiously rejects (and plots to have Lorenzo locked up), backed by the male chorus in a rather early Verdi way.

Scene 2 (14 minutes)

15- An intermezzo *, oboe with strings becoming something more about two and a half minutes later. Romeo comes on, foreboding recitative with the oboe and strings as he realizes that Lorenzo is not showing up. Tebaldo arrives and the two men are up in arms and a strange duet ensues, two tenors duetting, this is so rare in opera, and also not not what Bellini intended.

23- Suddenly, Organ music is heard, there is a funeral going on. Who’s? A rather nice and sad chorus over which the two tenors realize it is for Giulietta. The two men duet expressing their grief and their mutual death wish for the remainder of the scene ending with some magnificent high notes. This five minute sequence is the best in the opera ***.

Scene 3 (21 minutes)

28-Death settles on the opera during the interlude *, which makes sense because we are in the Capulet crypt, then we get some Norma-ish stuff in the woodwinds. The chorus is something of a let down though, just a little too upbeat. Romeo arrives and wants to see Giulietta’s body. So much of this is brooding recitative with choral participation before Romeo gets them to leave finally.

38-Romeo has his love-death scene before he takes poison, a very sweet tune **.

42- Giulietta wakes up *, Romeo realizes that he has just done something very, very, wrong and slowly dies in an okay finale duet which could be a lot more effecting, and it should be, but it is hard to get there.

48-The finale 90 seconds: Romeo dies, Giulietta screams and dies. Capellio and the chorus discover the bodies, Capellio asks who is responsible for what has happened and the chorus declares dramatically that he is, rather powerful **.


I would make a case for this being one of the weakest operas Bellini wrote, I find Zaira more tuneful and the fact that half of the music from this opera is essentially lifted from Zaira makes it even more ironic that it is just so pallid.  I can credit the libretto for simplifying the rather complicated but more familiar Shakespearean story to a much more manageable size (just five characters and chorus, six scenes). Thus the plot is good if the music is only good except for a couple of highs and lows. Another plus is that all six scenes move at a quick pace, and the opera does not seem long at all, it sticks to the main story line and that is it, there are no “filler” numbers, and the chorus is mostly given the minimum to do which in the case of this opera may be a good thing because the chorus is not all that impressive until the second act. The Montecchi soldier chorus in act 1 scene 3 is a bit too Gilbert and Sullivan whereas gloom is basically a leitmotif for Giulietta. The other choral numbers are either very poor or not all that great until Giulietta’s funeral sequence when with the organ accompaniment things just start to get better. There is also a lack of truly great music in this opera, almost everything is so second-rate and much of it consists of rather standard bel canto.  The best music belongs to Romeo and Tebaldo. Giulietta is a musical bore, like Medora in Verdi’s Il corsaro, she is far too sad and far too loyal that if anything does hold up the plot or the music it is her, however Margherita Rinaldi does sing the part well. The two basses are rather non-descriptive as roles although they are sung well. I have heard this opera twice, once with a mezzo-soprano Romeo around 15 years ago and now here with a tenor, and although I leave the experience happy to have heard it (especially with the two tenors Aragall and Pavarotti on this recording!) I have absolutely no desire to hear it a third time, although maybe in another 15 to 20 years I might want to just as a curio. Another interesting thing about this opera is that parts of it, as indicated above, did give me the impression that I was listening to Verdi, although this opera is from nearly a full decade before Verdi even wrote an opera! This only impacts about 15-20 minutes of the opera, mostly in scenes with either Giulietta or Romeo, but it is a little beguiling. The opera also lacks real sex appeal, partially because of the androgyny of a female Romeo in the original score, there just isn’t any really fire between the two lovers and it doesn’t sit well even with a tenor. Romeo sung by a tenor is an innovation on Bellini’s original score so I will try to avoid judging this to much. To some extent it does sound weird, but we are so used to the idea of Romeo as a tenor in opera that we must also ask why it seems so weird even if the role was intended for a contralto?  In the end I have to give I Capuleti e i Montecchi a B- although I suppose it could do better.

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