That performances of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi remain rare is baffling.
It is such a supremely elegant score and so theatrically appealing it makes Rossini seem frazzled and Donizetti plain slushy by comparison. Each of its qualities was triumphantly realised in this latest run at Covent Garden.
Although the story is best known through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Bellini’s librettist, Felice Romani, was in fact inspired by original Italian sources. In his retelling, the strife between the Capuleti and Montecchi is set within the broader context of Guelphs versus Ghibellines, and the blood-shed has already started when the curtain rises.
It’s almost 25 years to the day that Pier Luigi Pizzi’s conventional production premiered at Covent Garden, and revivals have been few and far between. Like a languid pre-Raphaelite painter, Pizzi revels in the mood of artful morbidity: his scenes are arranged within grim, medieval sets and his washed-out palette is broken only by the bright battle-dress of the warring families.
Without the star pairing we had in Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko, Romeo and Giulietta respectively, Massimo Gasparon’s revival might well have felt leaden, but in this instance it was bristling with emotion and dramatic colour. Vocally, they are an excellent match, and such compatibility is especially suited to this piece, which frequently requires both parts to mingle within the same range.
Netrebko played Giulietta with grace and sensitivity, and her soprano, which seems have acquired a more mature edge in recent years, was rich and expressive, especially in the ‘Oh! quante volte’ romanza.
But Garanca stole the show; her Romeo had everything. As well as her boyish physique, and apt posturing, her mezzo was virile and characterful, capable of breathtaking flexibility in the machoistic arias, and exquisite tenderness during the duets with Giulietta. Throughout she delivered her lines with emotional depth and credibility, and immaculate legato phrasing.
Elsewhere, Daro Schmunck was a slightly uneven Tebaldo: his opening aria sounded rough around the edges and although his grasp of the role improved, Garanca’s Romeo seemed far more dashing. Perhaps that was the idea. But Eric Owens’ Capellio was commanding.
Mark Elder’s account was so accomplished that it’s hard to believe he was conducting his first Bellini opera on stage. While he extracted glorious colour and texture from the orchestra, the music sounded spacious and he was unafraid to linger over the intimate moments.
The score itself and this production, without a doubt is contrived for the leading couple to shine over everything else, and shine they did.