I Capuleti e I Montecchi, Vienna 2008, Netrebko, Garanca, DG 4778031 [2 CDs]; Norma, Theatre Antique d’ Orange 1974, VAI DVD 4229 and La Sonnambula, Cagliari 2008, Gutierrez, Siragusa, Alaimo, Dynamic 33616 [DVD]
Bellini’s opera I Capuleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) was little known 30 years ago but is nowadays performed increasingly often. It’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, though it uses various Italian sources rather than the play itself. Thus the rival Capulets and Montagues become the Guelphs and Ghibellines of Medieval Italian history, a character called Tebaldo combines the functions of Paris, who Giulietta’s (Juliet’s) parents want her to marry, and Romeo’s friend Tybalt, and Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence, who’s a keen herbalist, becomes a doctor called Lorenzo.
Bellini stitched it together in a hurry after a rival composer had failed to fulfill a commission. He used melodies from an earlier, failed, opera of his (though they still sound magnificent today). Most importantly, he wrote both Romeo’s and Giulietta’s roles for women’s voices.
YouTube is becoming indispensible for opera-lovers, particularly after someone called Shawn Melon started uploading complete opera productions. This is the first port of call when looking for a superb rendition dating from 2008, but only uploaded last year, starring Anna Netrebko as Giulietta and Joyce DiDonato as Romeo. I finally tracked down the original DVD on an invaluable resource for rare classical products, the Berkshire Record Outlet (www.berkshirerecordoutlet.com). This reveals that it’s on the Encore label, with the catalogue number 3325, and cheap, but with limited availability. It’s even cheaper from House of Opera (www.operapassion.com).
The production filmed here is from the Opera National in Paris. Netrebko was five months pregnant at the time but nevertheless gives a stunning performance, as does DiDonato as Romeo. I experienced an enormous thrill as Bellini’s familiar style — quick marches, apparently made popular by the French Revolution, alternating with lyrical melodies with characteristically long vocal lines — once more seeped into my consciousness.
The set is very simple — squares of red velvet on the walls, and most of the rest of the color provided by the costumes. But the whole production, conducted by Evelino Pido, has enormous vitality and freshness, even though it was designed by Robert Carson some time ago — YouTube has a clip of Vasselina Kasarova in it back in 1996.
Also in 2008 Netrebko recorded the opera again, this time in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Fabio Luisi. Her Romeo here is the Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca, and the result is issued on two CDs by Deutsche Grammophon.
This, like the Paris DVD, is a great treasure. It’s impossible to choose between Garanca and DiDonato — both are outstanding. And each version will help to establish this opera as the masterpiece of the bel canto (beautiful singing) style it truly is.
YouTube, and Shawn Melon, come up trumps again with a fascinating production of Norma, generally rated Bellini’s finest work, from Tokyo in 2003 (uploaded in 2012). The title role is taken by Fiorenza Cedolins, with Vincenzo La Scola as Pollione. It’s in no way denigrating the musical virtues of this production to say that its strongest suit is its visual style.