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. 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. Where else do you get to hear both Giacomo Aragall (Romeo) and Luciano Pavarotti (Tebaldo) at the same time!
Also, I totally got this opera wrong back in 2017; it is masterful, and with two tenors it is amazing. Easily, this is the best version of Romeo and Juliet.
Although this version, with tenor Romeo, is rarely performed (being an arrangement by conductor Claudio Abbado from the 1960s), it was produced in 2014 by the Royal Opera of Muscat, Oman.
Opera in 2 Acts and 6 tableaux (126 minutes):
PLOT: It is Romeo and Juliet, just an older Italian version of the story in which Laurence (bass, although in the autograph score the part is written in tenor clef) is actually a lay physician to Juliette (soprano), Tybalt (tenor, who is already engaged to Juliette before the curtain rises) wants to kill Romeo (tenor) 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 **.
4, 10: Aggiorna appena, È serbata a questo acciaro After a very standard jumpy introduction chorus * (resembling themes from the overture) 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: Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio 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 **; the war cry is more standard military music *, but gives the scene a rousing conclusion.
Scene 2 (27 minutes)
29, 34: Oh quante volte, oh quante After a mood setting entr’acte with a beguiling horn solo ** we meet Giulietta in a slow recitative which is followed by a slow and somber aria ** with harp accompaniment in which she apparently vents her frustrations over everyone’s wedding plans and pines for Romeo. Lorenzo comes on telling 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.
41, 45, 50: Sì, fuggire, a noi non resta/Ah crudel!/Odi tu? 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 (a bit of the overture creeps in) and I had to remind myself that I was not listening to early Verdi.
Scene 3 ( 22 minutes)
56, 62, 69: Lieta notte/Tace il fragor/Soccorso, sostegno A very standard introductory chorus of Capuleti ready for wedding time opens the scene *. 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 (again, to a tune from the overture) starts banging away at the palace gates before it dies away rather quickly and we return to Giulietta’s sad mood music again as 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. 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 lite 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 ***.
74: Romeo! Romeo’s army bursts into the hall and at last the stretta begins. Romeo starts us off with male chorus pattering away with a rather nice tenor line joined by Giulietta with a rather lovely tune taken directly from Zaira ***. 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)
4: Morte io non temo 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: Ah! Non possio partire 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, 20: Stolto! 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 *.
23: Ella e morta! 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 seven-minute sequence is the best in the opera ***.
Scene 3 (21 minutes)
28, 34: Siami giunti/Ecco la tomba Death settles on the opera during the interlude *, which makes sense because we are in the Capulet crypt. The chorus is strangely 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 (notice a melody in the oboe which will appear in Lohengrin).
38: Deh tu, deh tu bell’anima! Romeo has his love-death scene before he takes poison, a very sweet tune which was originally given to the title character in Zaira ***.
42: Giulietta wakes up **, Romeo realizes that he has just done something very, very, wrong and slowly dies in a very effective scene (he dies saying the middle of her name).
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 ***.
My initial impression of this opera was totally invalid, as there is little wrong with it. 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). 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. Two or three of the choruses seem like dull filler, but otherwise the way Bellini manipulated eight of the numbers in Zaira to successful effect here is something of a musical miracle. The Montecchi soldier chorus in act 1 scene 3 and the chorus of mourning Capuleti are a bit too Gilbert and Sullivan, whereas gloom is basically a leitmotif for Giulietta, it is true, but most of the rest is really very good. Giulietta’s funeral sequence, along with the two finales, are excellent. Giulietta can be a bore at times, (like Medora in Verdi’s Il corsaro, she is far too sad and far too loyal); if anything does hold up the plot or the music it is either her (although she does get two good arias, and the opening of act two, which is dominated by the soprano, is very good indeed) or the chorus (never the Bellini strong point). As for the soloists: Margherita Rinaldi does sing the heroine well. The two basses are rather non-descriptive as roles although they are sung well. The stars of the night are obviously the two tenors Aragall and Pavarotti. The orchestral preludes, interludes, and intermezzi are better here than in almost any other opera Bellini wrote. I prefer the tenor Romeo, sorry to the purists, but a contralto romancing a soprano just doesn’t make my blood race. Also, having a lone soprano surrounded by an otherwise entirely male cast isolates Giulietta and makes her plight all the more poignant. At least now the opera is sexy. In the end I have to give I Capuleti e i Montecchi an apology– and an A-.