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Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Agnes Baltsa (mezzo) – Romeo; Edita Gruberova (soprano) – Giulietta; Dano Raffanti (tenor) – Tebaldo; Gwynne Howell (bass) – Capellio; John Tomlinson (bass) – Lorenzo
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, Covent Garden, 1984
EMI CLASSICS 5091442 [58:35 + 71:25]
Experience Classicsonline

British listeners to this work will be inevitably puzzled by an opera which takes two of Shakespeare’s most famous lovers but tells a story only approximately parallel to the one we all know – Tybalt doesn’t even die. In truth, the librettist Romani based himself quite independently on the original Italian sources – from which Shakespeare got the tale – and probably threw in a French re-telling for good measure. The result is arguably more effective than most attempts to top and tail Shakespeare into an opera libretto.
The other thing that listeners have to take in their stride is the apparent mismatch between Bellini’s fast music – rum-ti-tum and rollicking or noisy and march-like – and his slower music in which he displays that gift for long, flowing melodic lines that Chopin and Verdi, in their different ways, admired so much. His accompanied recitatives are also finely realized and there is an imaginative use of solo instruments in the orchestra. Clearly, Bellini was modernizing the mechanics of Italian opera and his slow music already reaches out to middle-period Verdi. The process hadn’t yet reached his fast music, which still sounds like Donizetti, and not always the best Donizetti. However, this opera is powerful and affecting in all the moments where it most needs to be, and signally in the final scene.
For many years this was a Bellini opera that remained out in the wild. For more than half the twentieth century the idea of a mezzo-soprano singing Romeo was too incongruous to be acceptable.  As recently as 1966 Claudio Abbado tried to popularize the work by arranging the part for a tenor. Interest in this version fizzled out after 1967. Bootleg versions circulate but the opera’s serious discography seems to have begun with the Sills/Baker traversal under Patané (EMI, 1975), followed ten years later by the present recording taken from live performances at Covent Garden. More recently we have had Mei/Kasarova under Roberto Abbado (Sony) and Netrebko/Garanca under Luisi (DG). A version by Devinu/Antonacci under Campori (Warner Fonit) has also appeared, but Robert McKechnie’s review isn’t encouraging.
Gruberova and Baltsa make a well-contrasted pair. Gruberova’s voice encompasses smoothly and effortlessly the considerable demands of the part. The sound she makes is unfailingly beautiful yet also affecting, the words sufficiently in their place but never emphasized at the expense of the line. Her Juliet comes across as resigned and vulnerable. I noticed a few slightly flat high notes in Act One. Perhaps she still had to warm up fully, for in Act Two her singing is perfect.
Baltsa has a more obviously personalized manner. Her rasping treatment of the final “a” in words like “tradita” suggests an admiration for Callas, as does her way of biting on the penultimate note of a phrase before resolving the melodic line gently. But the model is a good one if not overdone and she never takes it to ugly extremes as the Diva Maria sometimes did. Her singing as such is as fine as Gruberova’s, but by means of these more inflected accents and her gutsy timbre she puts across a stronger, more impetuous character. In recitatives, however, it is Gruberova who handles the Italian speech-rhythms more naturally. Without suggesting Baltsa’s recitatives are of the shopping-list variety, she does seem to be speaking all in capital letters. Nonetheless, this is a very fine portrayal.
This is clearly not a “tenor’s opera”. Banished from his “natural” part of Romeo, the poor tenor has to fall back on Tybalt. Dano Raffanti, it must be said, makes no more of it than strictly necessary. The voice itself is fair enough for a Bellini tenor, smallish but pliant and pleasing except when singing top notes, something that tenors unfortunately do quite often. Whether the part offers more in the way of characterization is not put to the test.
Gwynne Howell vindicates the thankless role of Capulet with rounded tone. John Tomlinson as Doctor – not Friar in this version – Lawrence has rather more to do and makes the most of it. If there is a third leading role in the opera it is this, though neither Romani nor Bellini had the Shakespearian ability to make a minor character live in our hearts.
This is a period of Italian opera for which Muti has always felt a burning passion. He conducts with expressivity and fervour, as well as taking great care over colour. Criticisms that have been made of Bellini as an orchestrator become meaningless when he is at the helm. He also shows a flexibility that he sometimes lacks and at least sees that the rum-ti-tum passages are buoyant and not just noisy. It is as well that the orchestral playing is so good, since the recording sometimes emphasizes it at the expense of the voices. Some will welcome this as a “natural” balance. I tend to feel that engineers should discreetly help the ear when the visual side is lacking. The audience is very well-behaved. Until applause broke out at the end of CD 1 I hadn’t realized it was a live performance at all – I tend to study the documentation after listening. Irreverently, I wonder if a live performance from Italy with the same cast, with applause after every aria, the odd boo for the tenor and, if at La Scala, vivacious dispute over the Conductor they Loved to Hate, might have produced an extra theatrical frisson. Good as it is, a slight aura of studio good manners hangs over it.
As with all this series of EMI opera reissues, there is a good introduction and a quite detailed synopsis. A website is given from which the libretto and translations can be pulled down.
I don’t know the alternative recordings. I find it difficult to imagine the Gruberova-Baltsa-Muti combination can be bettered, though it could possibly be equalled.
Christopher Howell


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