Anyone with a little rudimentary Italian will instantly recognise I Capuleti e I Montecchi as the feuding dynasties, pillars of Veronese society, who crush the young lovers in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The situation in Bellini’s opera is familiar but the story unfolds with refreshing dissimilitude.
The opera isn’t based on Shakespeare (who was almost unknown to the 19th Century Italians) but reverts to his source material and also to another operatic version that librettist Felice Romani had written some years previously.
At the opening, Romeo has already killed a Capulet and an ailing Juliet (Giulietta), on the brink of marriage to Tybalt (Tebaldo), has long since fallen for the charms of her father’s deadly enemy.
The only reason for reviving Pier Luigi Pizzi’s 25 year old production is to showcase a duo of exceptional singers and that’s what we get here in the delectable shapes of Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca and Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, fresh from recording the work for Deutsche Grammophon.
Garanca strikes a handsome figure as Romeo, with singing to match, and if her striding and strutting looks a tad old-school, it’s in keeping with the piece. A modernised, conceptual approach would undoubtedly have got in the way and one can’t help admiring the efficiency and unobtrusiveness of Pizzi’s production (revived with the lightest of touches by Massimo Gasparon).
The first aria of Netrebko’s Giulietta (“Oh! Quante volte”), with lovely harp accompaniment, sets the tone for an evening-long meditation on beauty of tone and form. Sounding gorgeous and looking a little fuller than she did before giving birth recently, Netrebko exceeds her performance in La Traviata, which set Covent Garden alight a year ago.
There are only five principals in I Capuleti and Giovanni Battista Parodi as Lorenzo (the Friar Lawrence character), Dario Schmunk as Tebaldo, and the patriarch Capellio (Eric Owens) provide a stable, if unremarkable, backdrop for the two women.
Mark Elder conducts Bellini’s score with requisite grace.
It’s no wonder Berlioz, ever sensitive to Shakespeare’s genius, was disappointed when he saw the opera in 1831, a year after the Venice premiere. Despite its skilful economy, Romani’s libretto moves at a snail’s pace in Bellini's hands, and may have you, like Berlioz, crying out for some of Romeo and Juliet’s dynamism.
But this is bel canto where everything is designed to linger on beauty of expression and this revival provides it in exquisitely turned bucketsful.
This is an evening of old-fashioned staging, acting and operatic glamour and there’s no harm in that now and again.