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
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
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
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.