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20.7.12

Caramoor: Capulets and Montagues

available at Amazon
P. Gossett, Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera
(2006)

available at Amazon
H. Poriss, Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance
(2009)

available at Amazon
Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, A. Baltsa, E. Gruberova, Royal Opera House, R. Muti

(re-released on November 9, 2010)
DG 477 8031 | 2h10

available at Amazon
Bellini, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, A. Netrebko, E. Garanča, J. Calleja, Wiener Symphoniker, F. Luisi

(re-released on May 5, 2009)
EMI 5099964063751 | 2h08
Italian opera companies in the early nineteenth century were ruled by singers, who continued to exercise a prerogative to make substitutions or additions to operas in which they starred. Scholar Philip Gossett, in his entertaining book Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera, makes this point with a story about Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, premiered in Venice in 1830, on a libretto by Felice Romani. Bellini, who was familiar with an earlier opera on a similar libretto by Romani (Nicola Vaccai's Giulietta e Romeo, 1825), chose to have the concluding tomb scene feature an extended duet for the lovers rather than a major solo scene for Romeo as Vaccai had done. When the notoriously willful Maria Malibran performed Romeo in Bellini's opera, first in 1832, she forced theaters to conclude it not with Bellini's finale but that of Vaccai, the better to show off her voice.

When other singers followed suit, the librettist, Romani, wrote an article condemning the practice, stating that "the third act of Vaccai was glued to the opera of Bellini, as in the punishment by which Mesenzio attached a dead body to a live one." That apt if shocking image relates to Mezentius, an Etruscan king mentioned in the Aeneid, who was renowned for his cruelty: to punish an enemy he would bind him to a dead body, face to face and hand to hand, and leave him to die. Outrage or not, as Gossett notes, Ricordi continued to publish the Vaccai finale in its vocal score of Bellini's opera, alongside Bellini's finale, indicating that the practice remained popular. Indeed, Hilary Poriss maintains, in her book Changing the Score: Arias, Prima Donnas, and the Authority of Performance, that "extant librettos reveal that nearly two-thirds of all productions that occurred between 1833 and 1857 featured the Vaccai ending."

The sound on a recently re-released live recording of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, made at Covent Garden in 1984, is not that great, but much of the singing is first-rate. An unfortunate "live moment" is preserved in the Act I duet, when the offstage banda music goes badly awry, causing a mini-train wreck, with the singers off by a beat or more for many measures. Riccardo Muti, who has done so much to champion lesser-known jewels of the Italian bel canto tradition, brings out the best sides of this rather simple work, giving room to the forlorn cello solo featured in the introduction to Act II, and the melancholy contributions of horn, harp, and flute in Giulietta's stunning bedroom scene in Act I. The pairing of Agnes Baltsa's Romeo, blazing all the way up into the part's stratosphere (high B, mezzos!), and the radiant Giulietta of Edita Gruberova, all fireworks in that bedroom scene, is hard to beat. The rest of the cast may not be as much to write home about, except for the impressive sounds of tenor Dano Raffanti as Tebaldo, a voice not entirely in control at all times but with heroic power on the high Bs.

The other Capuleti set in my ears this week was a much-hyped but not all that great 2009 live recording conducted by Fabio Luisi. Anna Netrebko has not impressed me that much in bel canto repertoire, and her Giulietta does not do much to alter my opinion. She has the high Cs, a little forced rather than ecstatic, but the fioriture are, as usual, not that clean, and it is just not the sort of pure-toned voice one needs for the role. Elīna Garanča has a strident, vibrato-heavy sound as Romeo, with a robust, even incisive top although the bottom disappears a bit. I have yet to warm to the tenor of Joseph Calleja, which again here as Tebaldo strikes me as grainy and undermined by intonation issues.

We now have a critical edition (by Claudio Toscani, University of Milan) of the score, which includes alternate pieces from the other version overseen by Bellini (after the work's Venice premiere, he made a revision later the same year for La Scala in Milan). At this Saturday's semi-staged concert performance of the opera at Caramoor (July 21, 8 pm), bel canto specialist Will Crutchfield will use the critical edition, which not only sorts out the opera's source history but corrects errors and orchestration augmentations which crept into the score over the years, and he will incorporate at least one of the Milan changes. (Crutchfield will also omit the rather dull overture, and a group of Caramoor Young Artists will present the Vaccai finale that was inserted by Malibran and others into Bellini's opera, in a pre-concert performance at 4 pm.) The Caramoor cast is headlined by Eglise Gutiérrez as Giulietta and Kate Aldrich (the best part of Washington National Opera's Lucrezia Borgia a few years ago) as Romeo, with Leonardo Capalbo as Tebaldo. It will be the first visit to Caramoor for Ionarts.

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