Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Second Look: “Capulets and Montagues” at San Francisco Opera, October 14, 2012

October 16th, 2012

In addition to reviewing the first performance of San Francisco Opera’s 2012 production of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” [See Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell Sing Beautifully in Bellini’s Bel Canto “Capulets and Montagues” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2012], I attended the fourth performance.

Between the first and fourth performances of Bellini’s work, which premiered in Venice in March 1830, I had the opportunity also to attend a live performance of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” (which premiered in Milan in December 1830, nine months after “Capuleti”), presented by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center [See my review at Radvanovsky’s Astonishing Anna Bolena Adorns An Admirable Cast – Washington National Opera, October 6, 2012].

Seeing the Bellini and Donizetti works a week apart was illuminating. I had just sent off an article for the program of another opera company’s upcoming production of a Donizetti work. In that article, I argue that it is wrong to categorize the early 19th century Italian composers Gioacchino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti as “the bel canto composers”, or any term that suggests the operas they composed were similar in style.

The Donizetti operas from “Anna Bolena” onward have much in common with the earlier style of Giuseppe Verdi, while the dramatic (non-comic) Neapolitan works of Rossini of the 1810s and 1820s were written in a different style. [For my report of a recent performance of a Rossini opera, see Stormy Weather, But Strong Performances from Pisaroni, Crocetto, Bardon, Sledge in Rossini’s “Maometto II” – Santa Fe Opera, August 2, 2012.]

A Digression on Bellini and the Romeo and Juliet Project

If one accepts my premise that the works of Rossini and Donizetti are different species, does one consider Bellini as related closer to Rossini or to Donizetti? With some qualifications (that would include Bellini’s style of composing melody), the answer is the latter.

[Below: Vincenzo Bellini in 1830, the year of the premiere of “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”; resized image of the Natale Schiavoni oil painting from life.]

One could characterize the melodies as Chopinesque if it were not for the fact that Chopin’s long melodies in his piano works were directly influenced by the operas of his friend Bellini, who was dead before many of Chopin’s works were composed.

Romeo as a Mezzo-Soprano

To modern audiences the most obvious difference between Rossini’s “serious” operas and Donizetti’s is that the latter almost always would cast a tenor as the heroic and/or romantic lead, whereas Rossini would almost always cast a female mezzo-soprano dressed as a man in such a role.

In “Capuleti” the role of Romeo is written for a mezzo – at its 1830 premiere in Venice for the superstar Giuditta Grisi.

[Below: Giuditta Grisi, the creator of the role of Romeo in Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”; edited image of a historical painting.]

Bellini had  won his fame and celebrity with his opera Il Pirata (the Pirate). Its heroic male lead was written for and premiered by Giovanni Rubini, one of the pioneers in the Romantic tenor category. Rubini’s career included several important tenor roles in Bellini and Donizetti operas.

The success of Pirata resulted in Bellini, still in his 20s, being asked to produce an opera for the 1830 Venetian Carnival season, in the event that another composer, who held the contract, failed to deliver his opera on time.

That composer did fail to meet his obligation, so Bellini received his own contract for a new opera at the last possible moment. With little time to compose a wholly new opera, Bellini agreed to use the libretto by Felice Romani, Bellini’s principal librettist, that Romani had already used in an opera by another composer . That composer (Nicola Vaccai), had composed the part of Romeo as a female contralto. An older version of the Romeo and Juliet story was written by Bellini’s teacher, Niccolo Zingarelli, in which Romeo was a male castrato soprano.

With just over a month to compose the music, Bellini observed the tradition that a hero/lover should be a high voice. He had for his cast a celebrity mezzo, Giuditta Grisi, with whom Bellini had worked previously. Thus, for Venice he could write the part of Romeo for her with his knowledge of her specific voice.

Unlike modern audiences, who know the lush melodies of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” , written for a tenor and a soprano in the title roles, Venetian audiences expected a high voice as Romeo.Therefore, no time was spent second-guessing the idea that both Romeo and Giulietta should be high voices.

If  one suggests that the 27 year old Bellini should have observed the practice of his earlier operas in avoiding writing for women who have to perform in men’s dress, so as to be more palatable to 21st century audiences, a few facts should be considered. Bellini was a Sicilian,whose musical education was  in Naples, and who was anxious to achieve success in Northern Italy, an important region for operatic commissions.

He re-purposed much of the music of an opera from a few months before that had been a failure at its premiere in a smaller Italian city.

Adopting his style to  existing musical conventions, Bellini’a “Capuleti” ended up as a great 1830s operatic hit, but in all his future operas, he would write the opera’s lover/hero for the Italian tenor voice.

Relevant Productions of “I Capuleti”

The San Francisco Opera has only performed this opera in one previous season, 1991, using a 1985 Giulio Chazelettes production from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Compared to this current co-production with the Munich opera company, it was more traditional, even if both productions share a dark color scheme. The production was the only time that Conductor Sir Antonio Pappano performed at the San Francisco Opera.

There was an unexpected consequence of the 1991 production, concerning the opera company’s then rehearsal director Christopher Hahn, Adler fellow Laura Claycomb (who covered the Giulietta of soprano Cecilia Gasdia), and then San Francisco Opera Assistant Stage Manager Thor Steingraber. Hahn, Steingraber and Claycomb all were factors in creating a stylish new production of  “I Capuleti” at the Los Angeles Opera, which was revived for the Pittsburgh Opera. My review of the latter production relays that story [See Beautiful Singing in Bellini’s “Capuleti”: Pittsburgh Opera – May 3, 2008.]

The current Munich production, I think, does contribute an insight or two to the work as a whole – the ferocity of the fighting between the two houses in Verona (saddles high in sky ready for the men to ride into battle), and the fragility of Giulietta’s mental state.

What is defensible in this concept production is not aided by what is not – the attempt to introduce the idea that women in Renaissance Italy (or, perhaps, early 19th century Venice, or contemporary Bavaria or California) are treated as sex objects. I’ve read the production designer’s explanation of this emphasis (that the women choristers have nothing to sing!), but find the suggestion that the overwrought, very ill Bellini was weaving any messages at all on that subject into his opera, to be quite a stretch.

[Below: Women choristers in Christian LaCroix costumes surround Romeo (Joyce DiDonato, bottom center, in top hat) who will disguise himself in a similar woman’s dress; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver production, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

If the production’s excesses might inspire some audience members to write scolding notes to the San Francisco Opera management, on balance the vocal performances of the five principal singers, especially Joyce DiDonato’s Romeo and Nicole Cabell’s Giulietta, but also Saimir Pirgu’s Tebaldo, Eric Owens’ Capellio and Ao Li’s Lorenzo, overwhelmed objections to particular features of the set and costume designs.

The Romeo and Juliet Story – Italian Style

Despite the concerns expressed above, I do believe the men’s costumes, choreographed movements for Giulietta, and even the saddles in the sky (which I would have probably voted against if my opinion was asked early on) helped crystallize the difference between the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet and the story in  Felice Romani’s libretto that Bellini used for “I Capuleti”.

Romani’s Romeo is a significantly different story from the Bard’s. Romeo is a warrior chieftain as well as a lover. Although initially willing to make peace with the Capulets if he can have Giulietta’s hand in marriage, when he learns that Tebaldo has been promised it, he sees only one solution, that Giulietta flees Verona with him and they establish themselves elsewhere.

[Below: Capellio (Eric Owens, left) refuses to allow Romeo (Joyce DiDonato, right) to marry his daughter; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Giulietta will not commit to leaving her family that way, and sees death as the only option to them. This is why she is attracted to Lorenzo’s potion that produces sleep that mimics death. If, as she suspects it might, Lorenzo’s scheme goes wrong, her life is ended without her having to take the route of suicide.

Once Giulietta refuses to elope with him, Romeo understands that death for both of them is likely the only way out.

The staging of the final scene provides the resolution. Giulietta regains consciousness to find that Romeo has consumed poison, in effect, although not on purpose, choosing her option of the two dying together.

[Below: the dying Romeo (Joyce DiDonato, left) becomes aware that Giulietta (Nicole Cabell, right) is not dead; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Surreally, they leave hand in hand toward an afterlife together, as the Capulet and Montague men come to realize the consequences of the blood feud between the families and make peace with one another.

Final Thoughts

This is an important musical presentation of Bellini’s beautiful work. Those who have seen or have the opportunity to see this cast have experienced the truly beautiful singing for which Bellini’s melodies were crafted.

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