I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Dublin

I Capuleti e i Montecchi

by Vincenzo Bellini
Opera Ireland
Dublin: Gaiety Theatre 4-6 March 2010
http://www.operaireland.ie

Bellini’s recounting of the story of star-crossed lovers Romeo Montague and Juliet
Capulet claims not Shakespeare as its heritage, but the Italian Renaissance stories
upon which Shakespeare himself based his version. It is certainly a radically
different piece of storytelling. It begins and ends with war: not merely a
longstanding feud, but a military assault by the massed armies of the Montagues upon
the Capulets, and with Romeo, the Montague commander, seeking audience in disguise
to sue for peace. In reality, he is trying to see Juliet, with whom he has already
fallen in love and who also loves him. The contours of the story that follow are
familiar enough, and it ends much the same way, but among many extraordinary and
complex ideas presented in the libretto is Juliet’s pronouncement that honour, duty,
and the law may be more powerful than love. This is a romantic tragedy, yes, but one
with a surprisingly political heart. As the star-crossed lovers die in more or less
the traditional manner, the last words are sung by nominal comrades Doctor Lorenzo
and Count Capulet, each accusing the other of murdering the lovers; both of them
right.

Bellini is historically remarked as one of the leading Bel Canto composers, but also
noteworthy according to most sources for the level of time and attention he paid to
actually trying to synchronise the emotions of the music with the verbal expression.
Bel Canto as a form relies on repetition and formulae, and a great deal of Operas
from the period were basically retreading and recycling not just forms and
structures, but actual musical compositions. This is the case with I Capuleti e i
Montecchi, which is heavily derived from Bellini’s own previous work. And yet
perhaps his choice of subject and his interest in melding form and content meant
that the alchemy he performed with this piece is all the more significant. I
Capuleti e i Montecchi is deeply moving, intricate, and very beautiful to listen to.
It challenges and rewards, stimulates and entertains, and with each turn in the plot
it seems he has a musical movement with which to answer the questions raised through
the emotions of his characters. For something classifiable within the Bel Canto
oeuvre, it is wonderfully moving.

Opera Ireland’s 2010 production is in the form of a concert performance, a rather
thinly-disguised signal flare marking the demise of art culture in recessionary
times. Though the principals perform with admirable and absolutely necessary
thespian dimensions, they do largely sing from sheet music, and are backed by a
chorus clutching their books and following direction carefully. Though this may be a
disincentive for some, none of this harms the music, certainly not with Maestro
Manilo Benzi surefootedly conducting the RTE Concert Orchestra through Bellini’s
marvellous score. The production also opts to retain Bellini’s original casting of a
female as Romeo, which brings a rousingly robust physical performance from Irish
Mezzo-Soprano Fiona Murphy as she frowns and struts with a projected masculine air.
Slovenian Soprano Bernarda Borbo is less confident as Juilet, particularly in the
lower registers, but Portuguese Tenor Bruno Ribeiro is a strapping and powerful
Tebaldo (here not Juliet’s cousin, but her intended husband, commander of the
Capulet forces after their former commander, Juliet’s brother, has been killed in
action by Romeo). The principals are completed by Italian Baritone Marcello Lippi as
Lorenzo and French Bass Eric Martin-Bonnet as Count Capulet, and both are fine,
strong singers who give focused, sombre performances.

It is understandable that this is the briefer of the two runs from the Spring Opera
season, paired with Gounod’s more crowd-pleasing Romeo et Juliette, and though that
production is thoroughly charming and entertaining, I Capuleti e i Montecchi is by
far the more rich and rewarding work. Better a concert performance than none at all.

Harvey O’Brien