August 2014

Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | August 2014 -

Renate Stendhal

Gender has its own fluidity in opera. In the baroque era, all operatic roles, male and female, were sung by Castrati. Their trumpet-like boy-soprano voices, favored by the Vatican, carried opera seria (serious opera) throughout the 18th century across Europe, and audiences had no problems with heros like Caesar, Atarxerxes or Alexander the Great expounding in clarion-shrill coloratura. The opposite – all roles sung by women --  has not yet occurred in opera, although it is something worth considering, given our gender-bending age and the new wealth of luscious mezzo voices waiting to excel. Interestingly, the early 19th century took a bold step in this direction, creating the trouser role for women. Bellini's decision to let Romeo and Juliet be sung by two women makes his 1830 opera I Capuleti e I Montecchi a hit on today's stages. What did Bellini have in mind?


Diva Dawn


By 1830, Farinelli, Caffarelli, Nicolini et al were gone. Audiences and composers had tired of the cold virtuosity and often uncontrollable fioritura embellishments that were the trademark of the Castrati. (The film Farinelli gives a somewhat lurid but interesting idea of their art.) The romantic era discovered the desire for emotion, bel canto, and with it a preference for women's voices. The diva was born, the soprano with extraordinary vocal range, powerful emotion, subtle phrasing and high dramatic acting ability.




Only fifty years separated Farinelli from Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta, divas who started the stellar lineage of singers -- Henriette Sontag, Jenny Lind, Pauline Viardot – leading to Maria Callas. It was the particular harmony between lower and higher women's voices singing together that interested composers like Rossini and Bellini, while the soprano's highest notes still carried an echo of the Castrati – the sense that in the stratosphere of voices one is perhaps closer to hearing angels sing.


Romeo in the guise of a woman might even today cause audiences to blink, especially as Romeo, in Bellini's version, is not Shakespeare's sensitive dreamer, but a warrior, the military leader of the Montagues clan. The libretto, relying on earlier Renaissance sources (that Shakespeare also used) has no ballroom and no balcony scene, no Nurse, Mercutio or Paris. (All of these can be found in Gounod's 1867 opera Romeo and Juliet.)  When the curtain opens, Bellini's Romeo and Juilet are already fully in love and Romeo, who has already murdered Juliet's brother, has frequent run-ins with the Capulet clan, trying to gain her hand in marriage before his rival Tebaldo can get her. He ends up crashing her wedding to Tebaldo with his troops. Their first encounter in this opera happens during the wedding disaster. Romeo pleads with her to elope with him, but Juliet can't leave without her father's blessing. When it is too late, the two distressed lovers cry out, "We will meet again in heaven!" The tragic ending then closely resembles Shakespeare's plot.




The Trouble with Trouser Roles


Good for Bellini, you may say, to be postmodern before his day and write Romeo for a woman. But while Norma, La Somnambula or I Puritani became hits when Callas unearthed them in the 1950s, I Capuleti e I Montecchi remained Bellini's least performed opera. It was almost forgotten until it suddenly resonated again in today's merry gender confusion and profusion of strong young mezzo voices. Top stars like Elina Garanca, Joyce di Donato and Susan Graham brought this new interest to a pitch in Europe and beyond, but the latest Paris attempt at Les Capulet et les Montaigu showed that it's not so easy to stage this opera and find a convincing Romeo. Bellini's Romeo is a demanding role, something Brigitte Fasbaender would have done wonders with if anyone had staged the opera during her time.




Young French mezzo Karine Deshayes (of fresh fame and many prizes) brings an interesting, beautifully smoky voice to the stage, but she lacks the capacity to embody the warrior-like hero with his saber-rattling and cries for revenge against a very manly Tebaldo (American tenor Charles Castronovo) and towering father (French bass-bariton Paul Gay). When Deshayes runs across the stage or draws a sword, one sees an awkward, pudgy little boy, stiffly holding and sticking out a toy. Her voice loses its power in the lowest register, and it took her time and frequent pitch problems until she came into her own. Then, helped by Bellini's lyricism and Juliet's presence, her voice melted into anguished lover's pleas. Imploring Juliet to wake up from sleep, "Wake up, wake up and rise!", she sounded perfect in the heart-rending sadness of the fatal ending.


"Netrebko light"


Next to her, Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina stands out with a gorgeous, finely spun and expressive voice and slender beauty. She undoubtedly is another rising star, already  seen at the Met. One may think of Anna Netrebko's debuts (Siurina seems like "Netrebko light"), but no matter how young and fresh her Juliet sounds, she still seems too mature for Deshayes' boy-child to make this Romeo and Juliet a convincing couple. Only at the end, when death breaks down every pretense and finds both lovers dwarfed by the huge vault, does the transformation occur that the composer clearly had in mind: you don't see roles or gender limitations any more, just two beings desperately in love and clinging helplessly to each other like orphaned children. Bellini wrote some of his most incandescent music for this soprano couple and their final scene – music that was admired by composers as diverse as Chopin, Wagner and Stravinsky. Italian maestro Bruno Campanella conducted with lyrical elan.


The direction by Canadian Robert Carson, in a production already created in 1996 for the Bastille Opera, hasn't aged well. With its huge, flat walls that crush the protagonists, it seems pedestrian and utterly unromantic. I found myself wishing to see an unstaged version rather than this distracting, dépassé attempt -- like the first French revival of the forgotten opera in Paris, in 1995 – a semi-staged concert version that was much more arresting and effective than Carsen's stagecraft in this case.


The best way to get acquainted with Bellini's belcanto masterpiece is to listen to the CD with Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko from 2009, conducted by Fabio Luisi on Deutsche Grammophon.


You can get the romantic, dramatic thrill of it with this YouTube snippet:




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Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and
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