miércoles, junio 15, 2016

Bellini´s different bel canto view on Romeo and Juliet

             The story about Romeo and Juliet comes from Medieval times in Italy but until it was taken up by Shakespeare it didn´t have so much repercussion, apart from Verona (where tourists are now led to a fake house of the lovers). Shakespeare´s play had immense success.  I was impacted by the wonderful films of Renato Castellani and Franco Zeffirelli and horrified by Luhrmann´s version in contemporary Miami.
            In music, there are at least four great "R and J": Tchaikovsky´s great tone poem; Prokofiev´s ballet; Gounod´s charming opera; and the 90-minute dramatic symphony by Berlioz, a marvelous score only played here in 1973. I am glad to anticipate an unofficial but very probable revival this year by the National Symphony.
             Back in 1971 the Colón offered Bellini´s "I Capuleti e i Montecchi", based on the same old Italian "novelle" that had inspired the English playwright but with many points differing strongly from Shakespeare. Of course, his play is vastly better than Felice Romani´s libretto as there are nowhere in it the poetic insights of the play that have become so famous, but some aspects are interesting.
            Shakespeare tells us of a terrible feud between Capulets and Montagus, but Romani adds an essential ingredient: the former are Ghibellines, the latter Guelfs, thus fully putting the action during the Thirteenth Century. From the Encyclopedia Britannica: "The split between the Guelfs, sympathetic to the papacy, and the Ghibellines, sympathetic to the German (Holy Roman) Emperors contributed to the chronic strife within the Italian cities". Both are derived from German sources: Guelfs from the Welf family, Ghibellines from Waiblingen, a castle of the Hohenstaufen.
            The main source of both Shakespeare and Romani seems to be Matteo Bandello´s  Late Medieval " The unfortunate death of two unhappy lovers", translated later into French and English. However, Romani was also influenced by the 1818 tragedy written by Luigi Scevola (based also on Bandello). And there is a further fact: the libretto was concocted for an earlier opera by Nicola Vaccai and adapted for Bellini.
            Now some words about the Colón´s 1971 version. There´s a vexed question: the Bellini original casts Romeo as a mezzosoprano, apparently due to a suggestion by Giuditta Grisi (who sang it at the Venice première on March 11, 1830).  There are at least four recordings of "Capuleti" and three of them respect the original; but one, with Scotto and Aragall, conducted by Claudio Abbado, transposes the mezzo writing to a tenor. And so did the Colón: Scotto with Renzo Casellato.
            Aurally the mezzo version has its charms: in my recording the combination of Beverly Sills and Janet Baker is refined and beautiful. But the Romantic tryst feels truer with soprano and tenor. Frankly, it strains credibility that a fifteen-year-old could be the Guelfs´ "condottiere"; his opponent is Giulietta´s father, Capellio. But such is Romani´s libretto; in Shakespeare things are more logical: Romeo, as so many teenagers in those days, plays around with a sword and does impish pranks with his friend Mercutio, in Romani nonexistent.
            In Bellini´s production one opera dominates: "Norma", of course; a powerful drama blended with pure bel canto. "I Puritani" has beautiful music on a poor libretto. And then come "La Sonnambula", "Il Pirata", "I Capuleti e i Montecchi", "Beatrice di Tenda" and "La Straniera". "Capuleti..." has its merits, although Romani´s libretto is mediocre (he was the most famous in those times, but this time he wrote well below his capacities). One positive fact, however: Tybalt (not Paris as in Shakespeare) is in deep love with Giulietta, and when he and Romeo, who were crossing swords, learn of her "death" (apparent), there is a moving scene where both stop fighting and reveal their despair.
            Curiously, for Bellini´s main gift was for vocal melody, the preludes to the scenes are distinguished by lovely solos (horn, clarinet, harp, cello). There are some beautiful arias and duets, but there´s too much recitative and the choruses are weak. Although the conductor Jorge Parodi states in an interview there are no cuts in his version, there is a small but crucial one, in which Capellio says that he suspects Lorenzo and will confine him: that explains why Romeo doesn´t know that Giulietta´s death is simulated and drinks the venom that kills him.  In the silly ending, she dies of love...
            To survive this opera needs the right voices and production; that didn´t happen at BAL. Rocío Giordano was disappointing, for her high register was painful to hear; a pity, for she looks the part and in some lower passages she gave expression to her lines. Cecilia Pastawski, slim  and agile, made the change of sex plausible and sang with intensity, though her voice is small for this role. Santiago Ballerini, with the ease of his splendid high notes, and ameliorated acting, was a fine Tybalt. Capellio may be detestable, but it was richly sung by bass Walter Schwarz. Sebastián Angulegui gave compassion to his Lorenzo; however, his timbre sounded gritty.
             Parodi got adequate results from the orchestra (fine solos) and Juan Casasbellas did the best he could with the uninteresting choral parts. But Marcelo Perusso´s staging (producer and stage designer) neglected the necessary Medieval ambience (and Stella Maris Müller followed his orientation with modern costumes) even if he solved well the relationships of the characters (but why those three veiled women in the final scene? Voyeurism again...).  
For Buenos Aires Herald